Radio “Contacto 6-20”—A Hot Line for Criticism
"Look sir, I live in the Omar Torrijos barrio. It happens that we've only gotten milk here once, you know? So I'd like to ask MICOIN* what's going on with the milk and why their distribution system is so bad. What are we supposed to give our children to drink? Because if we don't get any powdered milk or regular milk in our dispensaries, what are we going to give our children, who are supposed to be 'the revolution's favorites,' tomorrow's future...?”
*Ministry of Domestic Commerce, which has among its functions to collect basic grains produced in the rural areas at regulated prices. MICOIN's distribution agency, ENABAS, is in charge of distributing the products sold under rationed household quotas, such as rice, oil, sugar, soap, etc., to local dispensaries all over the country.
“This morning we've been trying, without success, to get in touch with the folks at ENABAS about the availability of powdered milk in the dispensaries. But the director for Region III is at a seminar and the person in charge of supply is at ‘another’ seminar... Let's hope that the second in charge isn't at some seminar too, and will talk with us on the air and give people some guidance about where and when they can go to buy their pitcher of milk.”
On the first Monday of January 1984 a new program called "Contacto 6-20" went on the air over Voice of Nicaragua, the official national radio station. From 8 am to noon every morning the program opens its microphones, using three mobile units in the streets and neighborhoods of Managua for people to express their concerns, pose questions or make criticisms on whatever problem is affecting them. Three phone lines at the station take calls from listeners with phones.
Complaints about poor food distribution, high prices or flaws in the health care system; criticisms of this or that government office or specific official; and even quarrels between neighbors filled the Nicaraguan air waves with heartfelt controversy as never before.
“Contacto 6-20” quickly became the most popular program in the country, with a daily audience of 600,000 listeners. In a country where radio is by far the most wide- reaching medium, to say that this is the most popular program is to say that it’s the information source with the greatest impact in the country. For this reason, this experiment in popular communication has been followed with great interest in government circles, in the hope of learning what the people are thinking and feeling about the daily course of the revolution.
In its nearly three year history, “Contacto 6-20” has received more than 50,000 phone calls—mostly from people in Managua—and has made some 1,500 direct contacts through its mobile units, reporting firsthand the large and small daily events that take place in the streets of the capital. These figures, which represent 5% of Managua's total population are particularly remarkable considering the difficulties of telephone communication not only in the outlying provinces but even in the capital itself.
Barometer of popular concern, tribunal in which the government's performance is judged daily, open forum for the people's participation in the quest for solutions, arena for the daily exercise of freedom of expression, school of critical journalism: “Contacto 6-20” is all of these. To understand this phenomenon in greater depth, envío talked with journalist Luis Cabrera, who headed up "Contacto 6-20" for more than two years and now directs another popular opinion program—“Let's Talk—which began last May on the same station. Cabrera, 42 years old, is Argentine by birth. After long experience as a press, radio and television journalist in Argentina and Costa Rica, he arrived in Nicaragua with the revolution in 1979 and acquired Nicaraguan citizenship in 1984.
envío: Where did the idea for a program like this come from, with all its attendant risks of opening the microphones to the public? Was it the government? Did the Voice of Nicaragua staff want it? Or did it come from the people?
Cabrera: It was a little bit of all of those. The station management's support was crucial. No one could have overcome the obstacles we ran into in the beginning without it. Carlos José Guadamuz backed it, and the whole team was behind it—everyone wanted to do something new. The first “Contacto 6-20s” went on the air in December of '83 for just a couple of hours on Sundays. That was when we had the first paper shortages and the newspapers weren't publishing on Sundays. The program tried to fill in for the lack of international news at a time that was especially hot for Nicaragua—right after the invasion of Grenada. At that point we were already broadcasting some of the people's concerns. I remember that one of the first "problems" people brought up was how they could get hold of some Cuban dolls that had come into the country. It was Christmas time and this was a real basic concern.
The daily program as it is now—six days a week with its commentary and criticism, the mobile unit contacts, some music and international news bulletins—began broadcasting in January 1984. The idea of literally giving people a voice on the air came from a number of sources. The station's director had made some trips around Latin America and found a few talk shows that interested him, but they were quite a bit different from this one. Another factor was the experience of “De Cara al Pueblo”—the three-to-four hour meetings that Daniel Ortega and various Cabinet members have held weekly since 1979 with groups of about 300 people at a time in factories, villages, schools, etc. throughout the country. There people lay out their problems openly and get explanations and answers. The elections held in November 1984 were yet another inspiration for the program. It was important that people's criticisms not be left in the hands of the opposition parties. The revolution needed to take account of those criticisms, to channel and orient them. Why should the newspaper La Prensa be the only one to make criticisms? Why shouldn't we make them too, over the station? So the program came out of all these different influences. We called it “Contacto 6-20” because we want to be in continual contact with the people, and 6-20 is our frequency on the dial. The name stuck, and now “being in contact” is a familiar phrase.
The La Prensa “critique”—the way it wasenvío: What was the level of popular criticism in Nicaragua in 1984? What was it like at the beginning? How did the idea go over?
Cabrera: The people were as critical in 1984 as they were before or now. This is a critical people. But what would happen? Well, for example, a mouse showed up once in a bottle of soda that came out of the state bottling plant. So La Prensa got a big scandal going with the headline: "Sandinistas sell soda with mice,” and made it shocking news. They did the same thing with evictions, shortages, police abuses. They would take some concrete case and make a big generalization out of it; that was their style. Of the other two newspapers, El Nuevo Diario and Barricada, only Barricada had a “people's column” in those days, with a very low level of criticism. The revolution wasn't channeling the problems, there was no official place to go with them and only La Prensa was picking up on all those daily, ordinary, common problems that really interest people.
So lots of folks had criticisms to make, they saw faults and problems, but where could they express them? There was no custom and no channels. That's why in the beginning people called in with a certain hesitation, with some reluctance to talk. To get people to loosen up and say what they were thinking, we reporters also got critical, posing questions of officials, trying to encourage people. At the beginning simple problems were raised, whether it was a street full of potholes or a power blackout or something wrong with the water. In those first days, both we and the people were a little tentative, because we were as unaccustomed to this as they were. We had to get over that.
That's why it was important for people to see that we were in the campaign to be critical. Within two months we had a stronger and more definite tone and rhythm. We quickly showed that a program like this was needed. Today, “6-20” has the largest audience in the country, with 600,000 listeners daily. The program has expanded The Voice of Nicaragua audience so that today it’s the most listened-to station. In the last study, around September of this year, out of 100 points, The Voice had 40 and the other 60 were shared among the other 20 stations that broadcast from Managua.*
* There are no really reliable studies of radio or television audiences in Nicaragua, just random samplings. According to UNESCO data, there were 274 radios and 67 televisions for every thousand people in 1982. For Nicaragua's approximately 3,200,000 inhabitants that means 676,800 radios and 214,000 televisions, as well as a daily print run of 160,000 newspapers. The estimated audience of 600,000 for “Contacto 6-20” was calculated by multiplying 40% of the number of radios by the average number of listeners in each family.
envío: So you started the program to take away La Prensa's space for public criticism? To compete with it, to neutralize its influence?
Cabrera: No, no that's not why we started, that wasn't our objective. Besides, La Prensa wasn't really making a critique. Attacking the revolution or its leaders, planting alarmist rumors isn't criticism. It's disrespect, it's sensationalism. For example, on the occasion of the marriage of Great Britain’s Prince Charles, La Prensa commented that the Sandinista government’s gift could be the Complete Works of Comandante Carlos Fonseca, to help the newlyweds fall asleep quickly. Is that a critique? No, that's just embarrassing. They were always looking to see what kind of garbage like that they could get away with. But what avenues of thought did that open up for people? We have to present them with the pros and cons, not just with one side. On our program, we never say "We'll put them on the air if they agree with us." No, here the people say what they want to say. La Prensa was waging ideological warfare, not ideological struggle. It encouraged McCarthyism, chauvinism, xenophobia. There were times when it put out reports from “a Cuban” who had done this or that, or “an internationalist” who had run over somebody... all of it just to discredit Cubans and internationalists. Is this constructive criticism? Not at all. It always used to take some unintentional isolated incident and use it to do battle. So if one policeman fired his gun at a car that ran a stop sign they presented the story as if the police were always shooting at people. This is just yellow journalism.
Besides, let's suppose that the story about the mouse in the soda bottle or the policeman was good, legitimate criticism—which they weren't. That would be fine; La Prensa could get out ten such stories in a week. On the radio we can get the same ten stories out in less than one hour of a four hour program.
Open mikeenvío: How do these criticisms get on the air? How does the program work, what's the process, what level of control, of censorship do you maintain over what people say on the air?
Cabrera: There's no censorship. The program is on open microphone, live. The procedure is this: People call and say they want to talk about this or that issue. This is before going on the air. We ask them to identify themselves. Sometimes they don't want to because the topic is a sensitive one. In that case we ask them to give us a phone number and their location, and if we can we send a mobile unit for confirmation. Of course it's hard to send mobile units everywhere. Everyone wants us to send one... Anyhow, that's the precaution we take, and it's to avoid getting caught in lies. Okay, so once we know the general topic—not the details—the person goes on the air and tells what they want to say, a criticism, a concern, a complaint: "We're in contact with so-and-so from such and such a place...
(Caller) : “Listen, sir, I want to make a complaint regarding the question of stubble grazing. How can the price have gone up to 5,600 córdobas a hectare? Or for unlimited grazing a million córdobas! It's absurd! Contrary! It drives the price of milk up. Here in Granada UNAG and MIDINRA have been asked several times to impose some order on this situation and nothing's happened. We want to take it to the higher-ups so they’ll set a reasonable rate. This can't go on.”
November 24, 1986 (Caller) : “I want to register a complaint. At the Linda Vista Supermarket they're selling spoiled meat. I was there yesterday and the meat was fine. But today, who knows what happened to it. This is now the problem of the Ministry of Public Health. A business as important as the People's Supermarkets, which should be looking out for the community’s health... why are they letting this happen? All the people who stood in line for meat had to take it back because it was completely rotten; we couldn't take it home to our children or they'd get sick, and you know how hard it is to find medicine...”
(Contacto 6-20): “Compañera, have you let the management of the supermarket know about this?”
“Well I thought that was your job at the station—calling them. Because a person could waste a lot of time, more than I've already lost standing in line to get bad meat and now, going to look for the manager... That's why I came to make the complaint here on “Contacto 6-20,” because you're famous for making these kinds of complaints...”
November 25, 1986 (Caller): “Listen, I want to tell you about the case of a woman who has two little children, a three-year-old girl and a four-month-old boy. This woman, she's lodging in another woman's house, who's involved with this guy who takes the little girl for three or four days. And the kid, when he brings her back, well he's always drunk and she's all chewed-up seeming, mistreated, with black eyes and all. We've already pointed out to the woman that she should watch out for her kids. But since she hasn't done anything we want to know if Social Welfare can intervene, or perhaps the Children's Guardian Center.”
Cabrera: When the person has presented the problem, we take note of it, then communicate with the ministry or office in question to look for an explanation, so they can give a response. Sometimes we get an answer, sometimes not. In that sense the program is doing investigative work. Sometimes we can give the answer right away on the same program, sometimes after a few days. Of course this task of finding the right official and investigating what happened gets difficult because we get a lot of calls. We get an average of about 60 calls per day, and there are days when we get 80.
envío: Isn't there a risk that someone will call and say they're going to talk about one thing then talk about something else when they get on the air? Like a counterrevolutionary message, for example?
Cabrera: Yes, that's a risk we run. The journalist who's moderating the program has to see if they're putting one over on him and how to respond. But I have to say this has only happened a few times. People call to complain about all the things that go wrong, but they don't call to criticize the revolution. In nearly three years of this program about 50,000 calls have gone on the air. Out of all of those, there were only five slip-ups we would consider serious. I remember one Saturday they got one by me. The La Prensa reporter Luis Mora called me, using a false name, and said he was going to make a complaint about the electricity. When he went on the air he said, "Speaking in the name of all Nicaraguans I call for the immediate dismissal of the mercenary Luis Cabrera." I was thinking about something else and I didn't hear him. Neither did Rugama, the technician on the show. But the other guys told me about it. Then we played the tape back and knew who it was who had made the call. We took advantage of the situation to say that the program was a demonstration of democracy, because even a counterrevolutionary had participated on it. And in this case we were really right: within a short time Luis Mora went onto Reagan's payroll in Costa Rica...
I think the open microphone should be stressed. I'm sure this program, which critiques government agencies, is unique in the world for a number of reasons: it's on open mike; and it's broadcast over the official station, the state radio station, which has the biggest audience in the country. It's the first time an official state radio station has held the first-place audience. No other country has anything like this.
A safety valve and a tribunalenvío: What do people complain about most? What do they criticize the most? What do they question about the revolutionary government?
Cabrera: People talk about everything they think is going wrong, everything. But the topic that comes up most often is the supply of basic goods. This is what concerns them most, what most calls are about. And the ministry that receives the most criticisms is MICOIN. The thing people question the most is inefficient price controls in the markets and the fact that no one's blowing the whistle on these folks. They're demanding to be given what they've been promised. That is, people aren't protesting that the quota for soap is only a bar a month—what they want is to get what they've been promised and need. Or they start making noises if someone charges 10 pesos too much for a liter of milk and doesn't get penalized for it. These seem like little things, but they’re the things our people's lives are made up of.
The Mayor of Managua, Moisés Hassan, once said that the revolution has created a “culture of complaint” in Nicaragua. We've seen that on the program. They call “Contacto 6-20” for everything, it's become routine. They call to complain, to criticize, to condemn any little thing that happens to them. There are people who probably don't even listen to the program, who dial the number and say “Hello, is this where I call to complain?”
envío: Well then, is this a safety valve, a way to let off steam and nothing more?
Cabrera: Well, the program certainly is a way to let off steam. That's needed, because the people have a lot of tensions and concerns. With the war, this country is living under incredible pressure. This kind of collective escape valve has real value; a service that has to be provided. And it's as much a way to unwind for the people listening as for the person complaining. It's appreciated. Even if we were to occasionally dedicate the whole program to that, without any news or music, they'd still listen, even though it would be boring.
But “Contacto 6-20” isn't just a safety valve. We follow up on the complaints people call in. We communicate them to the appropriate ministry or agency or official. If we get a response, some solution, we put it on the air right away. We make contact again with the person who made the complaint and tell them what we found out, what answer was given to their problem. Sometimes we'll even make telephone connections between the agency or the official and the people who call so they can make their complaint directly. Other times we've had certain ministry people on the program. In this sense we're a kind of intermediary between the people and the government.
Sometimes there are officials who run away from you, who don't appear, or you'll be told they're in a meeting and they don't want to come to the phone. If this happens we say on the air that we tried to reach the guy, whose position is such and such, and he didn't want to answer. The program is also a tribunal, in which public officials can find themselves judged. And there's no trick they can use to get out of it. We point the finger at them publicly if they don't respond. This really bothers a lot of officials. At the beginning, and even now, in fact, some government people have attempted to get the program closed down. Criticism like this, on the air, used to make them nervous—it still does.
Through this program the people have taught government officials to accept criticism. This is one of the program’s values. And the people have also taught them not to forget their promises, because very often what people are calling about is that the government has promised something and hasn't come through. There are ministers, vice-ministers, public officials who, to get out of a tight spot, will promise you anything in the moment and later on forget about it. Then the people demand what they were promised, what they were told was going to be done. They demand their rights.
The greatest value is to feel like a protagonistenvío: But, how many of the issues posed end up being resolved, or at least clarified? Won't it create frustration to criticize, point out a problem or take someone to task for a promise not fulfilled, if nothing more comes of it?
Cabrera: Given the underdevelopment, the war and the embargo in Nicaragua, a lot of the problems can't be resolved in the short term. That's just how it is; there are no easy or quick solutions. And that simply has to be explained to people—they catch on pretty quick. This is one of the program’s functions, to explain why certain things can't be solved yet and to struggle to solve those that can be. Our job is to provide a channel for problems, to orient people and go after the things that can be solved. We don't have any statistics, so I can't tell you exactly how many problems out of those 50,000 calls we’ve been able to give adequate responses to, or to resolve.
But I don't think the predominant feeling is one of frustration, even when there are no solutions to their problems. The strongest thing that comes across is that, with their criticisms and complaints, people feel they are protagonists in this process. Because if you're just an ordinary person and you call the program and say, ‘Look, I'm really upset because today I got on the route so-and-so bus and the driver was nasty to me, calling me an old bag and saying I was going to have to get off and a bunch more stuff like that, and his license plate was number such-and-such...,’ and we call up the Ministry of Transport and talk with some functionary, then we get back on the radio and say, ‘Compañera X, official Y at the Ministry told us that you should go fill out a complaint so they can sanction the driver who offended you,’ what’s that woman going to think? ‘They listened to me, me who's nobody, they're listening to me! There really has been a change in this country, they're listening to the people.’ That, in my opinion is the greatest value of the program.
What people want above all is that somebody listen to them; it's more important than the complaint itself. Then, second, they want the offender punished. People really demand serious sanctions. They want to see heads roll. If an official is no good, they want the person sacked. Sometimes justice doesn't come down as energetically as they’d like to see it, because they're real serious about wanting things to get organized. They need to see that there's organization and order. They want reasonable, believable explanations. They also want some of the higher-level officials, the ones with greater responsibilities, to get their hands dirty, to go where the problems are and see them up close. It's all very well and good to give solutions from on high, but I'm convinced that if some of these guys really listened to all the concerns people have and to the series of suggestions they throw out, things would get much better.
envío: Has this happened? That the people not only complain but offer solutions? That they participate by suggesting ways to resolve the problems?
Cabrera: We've begun this just a few months ago. We feel like the task of giving an outlet for the population's complaints and concerns has now been fulfilled, but that it's not enough. We also wanted to find new formulas for participation, and that's how the program “Let's Talk” was born, also on Voice of Nicaragua. We began in May this year, in the afternoon slot, from 2:15 to 5:30. The idea is to make the program more thematic, to take on one theme each afternoon and get people to offer opinions, criticize and suggest solutions. Someone may lay out a problem. Okay, fine, but what do you propose, what would you do, how would you fix it? We also want to do this in “Contacto,” as a new trend, a new road. We've gone as far as we can with the complaints, now it's time to take calls a little more selectively. Not for reasons of censorship, but to be more organized. Because if someone calls to say that in so-and-so's store they're charging too much for milk, we say to them on the phone, before they even get on the air, ‘Have you already reported this to the organization in your barrio?’ Because you have to strengthen the neighborhood organizations. And if they call to say that in such-and-such a place they're selling wormy cheese, ‘Have you told your Regional Health Office?’ Now that they've had a couple of years of practice in voicing their complaints to us, it's time for people to start dealing with these agencies directly.
We have several ideas for “Let's Talk” for 1987. One is to dedicate the afternoons of a whole week to one government ministry. “Let's talk about health...” in which people would call and talk about all the problems they see in the health care system. In one week you'd have 30 criticisms from the people. Then you'd organize them by theme and on the last day put on the health minister to respond to everything that was brought up. Like that, ministry by ministry. The people would start to think beyond little the details to the larger problems of each ministry. Another idea is to put the minister on the program together with the people responsible for each zone. Another is to take an official out in a mobile unit so the people in different places could present their problems. The official would be obliged to roll up his sleeves and work it out with the people.
envío: Would you say that after three years “Contacto” and now “Let's Talk” are a good compensation for the weakness of the revolutionary state?
Cabrera: I say it's a very strong government that can accept four, five, six hours of massive criticism every day. And I think that a serious program like this would be an asset to any democratic state. The effect of such a program is to strengthen the government, not weaken it. I've seen opinion programs in other parts of the world—an hour or two at a time. Usually there's a guy, a commentator, a reporter, who explains a problem, comments on it, gives his opinion. Bright, sharp, critical. But he's the only one talking; he's thinking for the people who are listening. Then someone says, ‘So-and-so was great today. He really gave the government a piece of his mind.’ But it was only a piece of his mind, this clever commentator's. This perpetuates a system that doesn't let you think, it makes you an accomplice—often an unconscious one—to a kind of “lobotomizing” that keeps you from thinking critically. And why think if, after all, this clever and incisive commentator is thinking for you?
Here in Nicaragua it's the opposite: the people think with the journalists and commentators. And when you participate in the program we make you think, respond, say what you think as part of the nation. The values are reversed: the ones who give a piece of their mind are the people. And if the commentators or reporters aren't on their toes as much as they should be, people will demand it of them. Nicaraguans are inflexible when you don't answer their questions. They don't want any beating around the bush; they want you to get to the point.
envío: We Nicaraguans use pretty strong language. Would you suggest we tone down the way we express ourselves a little bit?
Cabrera: No, people speak the way they speak. Sometimes they speak more strongly when they're all fired up about something. I think the day I heard the strongest language was on “Let's Talk” when we went out into the street and asked people ‘What would you do with Hasenfus?’ No, you have to respect people's language, whether it's strong or not. And anyhow, how are you going to get them to tone it down? Why would you want to? We don't want pretentiousness or formalities, we just want people to talk the way they talk.
envío: The discussion about Hasenfus was mostly ideological in nature... does that predominate in the program, ideological critique?
Cabrera: No, there's really not much ideological debate as such. If there is, it's incidental—at certain times you notice that people are calling because they want to give an opinion or make a pronouncement. Once in a while we've had a pretty heated debate, like the one over Sports Minister Tijerino's sports programs, or the program on Lencho Catarrán’s stories,* where people started arguing about machismo. But what people talk about most is daily, routine things. We put the government and the people face to face about ordinary realities, immediate needs.
*Lencho Catarrán is a peasant storyteller on a popular radio program.
envío: What are they, mainly—individual problems or communal problems?
Cabrera: It varies. Individual issues and community issues are presented, just as are women's and men's different concerns. But in reality, the majority of the individual issues presented are also community issues. Because if someone talks about a problem they had in a health center, a number of people will have had the same problem, even if this person's the only one talking about it. Or if someone says that sugar's not getting to their barrio, the whole community’s affected. The Nicaraguan people are community people. Of course the grassroots sectors have a more deeply rooted sense of community, and you see an individualistic attitude primarily in the middle class, even among Sandinistas.
envío: But doesn't the openness of the program's format lend itself to becoming a kind of gossip session?
Cabrera: Malicious gossip, by one neighbor about another, is a very small percentage of what we get. Gossip comes up; it has come up and will continue to come up. But the dishonest or unfair official is much more often the object of criticism than the difficult neighbor. And I'll tell you, even what we would call gossip—a quarrel between neighbors, say—sometimes comes up because the person went to the police and got no satisfaction. Then it comes on the program, but it's not gossip, rather the people are looking for someone to mediate, some authority who will resolve the problem.
I remember one of the things we did have a lot in the beginning and that you also found with “De Cara al Pueblo” was accusing someone of being a Somocista, to discredit that person, going back to the past to call them into question—were they or were they not a Somocista. In “De Cara al Pueblo,” President Ortega has been very insistent in saying “It doesn't matter to us what you were before, if you didn't kill anyone and you're working for the community now.” And people started to understand, little by little.
envío: When people criticize someone, do they mention them by name or do they just make general kinds of ambiguous criticisms? Do they name specific officials, for example?
Cabrera: The complaints are very detailed. People have learned how to be concrete, to give the facts. Sometimes when someone’s pointing out a failure, they'll point to the ministry as a whole as the responsible party. People make very concrete criticisms rather than general ones, but they do tend to generalize the blame for the problem to the whole institution. So our job is to clarify, to explain to them that everyone has their own responsibility and it's not the entire Ministry of Health that's responsible, but the director of a particular hospital or the administrator or doctor in charge. The program is a two-way street; it has an educational function, too—that of explaining the issues, from the smallest to the most important.
And people bring up sensitive issues, too, because there are things that people really resent. For example, “How come government workers eat meat every day in their cafeterias and factory workers only get it once a week and sometimes not even that often?”
Okay, if this problem is brought up—and it has been—we let it go on the air to see what kind of response it gets, because it's a tough question. People understand the war, but they don't understand why there should be privilege—officials who own two cars, who have everything, favoritism in state posts. Of course you can't erase 50 years of Somocismo in 7 years. Okay, if all this comes out, let it. I think the minute you start wanting to censor, "out comes this fascist we all carry around inside," as Eduardo Galeano says, and you start saying, "No, let's not put this on because it's not important, or that either, because it's too sensitive...” No, the best thing is to go on the air with everything people bring up, so they’ll know this platform is always available. And I mean all the people, pluralistically, because it's not only Sandinistas who call “Contacto”; everyone calls. The program is a real expression of the pluralism that exists in Nicaragua.
envío: What national characteristics stand out? What profile of the Nicaraguan people would you say has emerged from your experience with “Contacto 6-20"?
Cabrera: To talk about everything I see would be very complicated. So I'll just point out a few features I've noticed on the program. Nicaraguans have a very high level of political consciousness. This isn’t the same as saying a high ideological level. But there’s a strong political sense, a “political nose.” People handle a lot of information with very correct political criteria. An illiterate person knows what Contadora is and can talk about it with skill. They analyzed the Hasenfus case correctly. It's a real asset that here in Nicaragua people never say, “This is how it is because Daniel says so.” They analyze what the President says, chew on it, elaborate on it and give it back to you improved. They always add their own contribution to whatever the leaders say. Here they don't talk much of the leadership as conducting the process. They've taken on the message. The people talk little and act a lot. In Nicaragua we tend to act and don't put a lot of energy into rationalizing ideologically what we've done.
On the other hand, I've also seen that sometimes bad habits remain from the past. For example, there's a paternalistic conception of the state. People want it to give them everything, to solve everything for them. This is disappearing little by little, because there are getting to be better levels of organization now. But at the beginning you'd notice this on the program a lot. I remember an extreme case. A man called from Granada and said there was a dead dog in a ditch near his house and the stench was unbearable. He was calling, all the way from Granada, to have us make a call to City Hall to have them come and take the dog away. Of course, I told him that he could do one of two things: either wait until it bloated up more and use it as a balloon for the Purísima festivities that were coming up, or look for this gizmo they call a shovel and bury it himself. Now you don't hear this kind of thing so much, but there are still some people who have a paternalistic image of the government.
envío: And how would you characterize the government?
Cabrera: I would say it's hard to speak in general terms, about the overall government. It depends on the ministry. Because there are still ministries that don't understand the value of criticism. Others do. For example, in the presidential offices they follow the program daily to find out what's going on. They're interested in knowing firsthand what people are talking about, in taking Managua’s pulse each day. When he has time, the President is one of the program's most interested listeners. The truth is that Daniel Ortega is accustomed to listening to criticism. Since 1979 he's presided over “De Cara al Pueblo” sessions every week, spending three, four, five hours listening to the problems brought up by whomever, in this or that town or village. I think this is unique in the whole world, too, for a President to dedicate that much time to listening in person to the population’s concerns and responding to them in an educational way. Someday someone should write the history of “De Cara al Pueblo.”
But not every ministry or every official has that same capacity to hear criticism. For some people it's hard to overcome the tendency to rhetoric. You'll call them to bring up a concrete problem someone has called in about and they'll answer, "The Sandinista popular revolution, following the outline of the new political content that has been put forth for the benefit of the people, blah, blah, blah..." And they don't give a single concrete answer. Yes, I think there are still officials who haven't realized that after almost eight years of revolution smooth talk doesn't get you anywhere.
envío: “Contacto 6-20” is a program mainly from Managua and therefore it's for Managua. Isn't that too centralized?
Cabrera: The fact is that Managua has a million inhabitants. The program is heard all over the country, but we have a better opening in Managua because we have more possibilities to deploy people around the city. And of course, the bulk of the population and of the country's problems are in Managua. In reality, we don't give better coverage to what happens out in the provinces not because of centralism, but because of the logistical limitations. In Managua we have three reporters in the streets, in three mobile units, running from one end of the city to the other and they each make about six reports a day. At the station there's one person coordinating and other national and international reporters. That's not very many people for four hours of programming, for about 60 calls and that much information coming in from the street.
We have correspondents in all the provincial capitals with whom we maintain daily contact so they can keep us informed about the important things that are happening in the regions. But of course we don't have the direct contact on the street there that we can here in Managua. Naturally, people can call us from anyplace in the country to tell us whatever, but outside of Managua there are very few telephones and communications are never very good. We've always had the idea of dedicating a whole morning to each of the provinces. But this assumes a deployment of personnel, telephone lines committed to this, and it's not easy to set up that kind of structure
To all these values of the two programs I think you have to add that they've begun a kind of new school of journalism. It's a Nicaraguan style, with a certain native simplicity, but new. Some criticize us because we don't take a more sophisticated or profound approach to things, but instead we’ve created a new way of being critics, of speaking with officials, of challenging them, of not being afraid to ask them anything. It wasn't this way for us three years ago. We were more deferential. But now we've learned to point out the government’s errors, to explain that not all faults are due to the aggression, the blockade, but also to bureaucracy, inefficiency. We're not the ones who foment the mistrust in certain government agencies that paves the way for criticisms. The ones who create this mistrust are certain officials themselves. I think that if there were intelligent people in all those ministries, they themselves would be looking for us, talking to us daily on “Contacto,” explaining, giving answers, asking for suggestions. But not all of them know how to do this. It's been our experience that when an explanation is given, the complaints go down. I think that if this program disappeared, it would be missed. One of the principal aids of the revolutionary state would have disappeared.
envío: What does the counterrevolution think of “Contacto 6-20”?
Cabrera: They monitor our broadcasts to use some of the people's criticisms for their own ends, but the revolutionary government has never been afraid of that. We even make it easier for them to monitor us, if they want to, because “Contacto” is on short wave on The Voice of Nicaragua and you can pick it up outside the country. In other words, we're not afraid to wash our dirty laundry in public. About six months after the program began, La Prensa and the counterrevolutionary radio stations started a campaign against me, for being a foreigner. Later, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Jr. gave the counterrevolution’s “fully elaborated” opinion of the program in an article he wrote last year, which was later published in the foreign media. In it he compared “Contacto 6-20” to the extremely controlled society Orwell described in his novel 1984. He said the program was no more than a school for denunciation and a way to encourage people to spy on each other.
They want my head. But we're used to that; we're not afraid of officials right here at home who also want our heads. And maybe what has taken away our fear is the security that the people support this and the revolution wants it. No, we haven't lowered ourselves to the people’s level, as some who've listened to the program think. We've risen up with them. We haven't just given people a voice, we've learned to talk with them, to be in constant contact with them.