Jalapa: A Symbol for All Nicaragua
Since March 1982, Jalapa has been the hottest war zone in Nicaragua. It has become a frequent point of reference in military reports and for solidarity visits. It has also been the most coveted objective of the counterrevolutionaries from the time of the so-called “silent war—strategy of terror” until that of the recently announced “Sierra Plan.” Just as Monimbó was the living symbol of Nicaragua in revolt until July 1979, Jalapa is presently the symbol of Nicaragua under attack.
A small group of researchers from the Instituto Histórico Centroamericano spent three months in the region (August-October 1983). They visited farm unions and several cooperatives in the area in order to obtain an understanding of the problems the locals must face. They also met with other union and coop members in the reserve battalions on the front line and witnessed the movements of counterrevolutionary troops in their Honduran-based camps. The researchers were not only searching for facts but also for the words with which the people of Jalapa analyze their own experience. The accounts of these people constitute the essence of this article.
A strategic bulge on the borderThe “beak of Jalapa” juts into Honduras and is surrounded by that country except at one spot: the old dirt road leading south to the city of Ocotal. The road is constantly crossed by little brooks that have been covered with small, fragile bridges. It seems that it would be easy to destroy them. It also appears that it would be simple to isolate Jalapa and cut the nerve that links it to the rest of Nicaragua by occupying the numerous hills flanking the dusty trail along which Sandino and his men rode their horses. Nevertheless, the counterrevolutionaries have attempted it repeatedly and have always failed.
“But Jalapa's also like a plain nestled up against the mountains of Jinotega and Zelaya. This allows the enemy to use regular forces on the plain, while carrying out guerrilla tactics in the mountains nearby. We're right on the border. The Honduran road's barely a few yards from the boundary line, and we have important production centers that go right up to that line”.
Jalapa is one of the 12 municipalities of the department of Nueva Segovia. Along with the departments of Madriz and Estelí, it makes up Region I, called Las Segovias. In 1981, Jalapa had 22,835 inhabitants, 82% of whom lived in rural areas. A high agricultural capacity and a strategic geographical location have put Jalapa, both politically and militarily, in the forefront of Nicaragua's revolutionary process. The land these peasants farm is extremely rich.
“Not only rich but very rich. As far as agriculture is concerned, I'd say that Jalapa's the most important zone here in the Segovias. We produce tobacco, which is a delicate plant that can easily be damaged by the counterrevolutionaries. Jalapa has 48,000 acres of flatlands and an excellent climate. Experts say it has the best rainfall in all Nicaragua. Even though we're still not using the full productive capacity of these 48,000 acres, you can understand why we have high expectations. We haven't received much economic aid. We've probably averaged less aid than the rest of the region or even the rest of the country. Still, what we've been given has been enough because the land is so good. For years and years Las Segovias has been Nicaragua's main tobacco region, and 65% of the tobacco grown in Las Segovias comes from Jalapa. That comes to about 750 tons. All of the region's rice is also produced in Jalapa. And now we're beginning to work seriously on basic grains: 6,000 tons of corn, 2,500 tons of beans… and what's more, we're only farming 30% of the arable land.”
“Our tasks are clear: we have to make this land produce all that we need to live; and we have to defend this land because our sovereignty is at stake here in Jalapa.”
Exploitation, numbness and SomocismoBetween 1950 and 1965, Las Segovias, and especially Jalapa, underwent impressive population growth. While the population had only increased by 1.4% per year from 1906 to 1950, the rate of growth jumped to 11.5% per year during the 1950 to 1963 period. By 1963, there were 8,602 inhabitants in Jalapa. The introduction of new crops—tobacco and coffee—required additional labor and attracted poor peasants from different areas. During the Somoza era, the two most numerous social groups in rural Jalapa were: 1) the agricultural workers, who toiled for wages on large haciendas and to a lesser extent on medium-size farms; and 2) the poor peasants, who owned plots of land no larger than eight acres in the mountainous zones. In order to survive, they too had to work for a wage. These two groups were dominated by the largest landowners (those owning more than 800 acres) and by the better-off peasants. Many of the inhabitants of Jalapa's small urban center worked as agricultural laborers on the large haciendas. All the farms and haciendas were strung out along the dusty road that cuts across Jalapa. The workers traveled back and forth along this road and earned a few pesos for long hours of sweat.
“Life was very tough under Somoza. We didn't even earn enough to eat. They paid us 14.40 pesos, and it was hard even to buy a pound of rice. They paid us every two weeks, but after just one week we were already in debt. All we did was ask for loans… we had the impression that even our lives were borrowed.”
“There were a bunch of political parties when I was young. Truckloads of people would leave Jalapa to go and vote, to go to the dances organized at election time, and to eat popsicles and tamales. Sure, there were a lot of Somocistas around here. They might not have cared much for Somoza, but there didn't seem to be anyone who could represent our interest. If there had been elections here six months before the victory in 1979, Somoza would have won. People would have gone the way of the cakes, the soft drinks, and the five pesos; they would have voted for Somoza.”
“René Molina, Rosa Quiñonez and the Somozas controlled the land and livestock around here. They were real Somocistas. They took off for Honduras. Then there were also Cubans who'd supported Batista and left Cuba when the revolution came along there. When I came into this world, this place was full of those Cubans. They first showed up when tobacco growing started. They had nice houses, servants, vehicles, parties for their people, everything. Somoza used them as administrators on his farms. I worked in tobacco with them. I made 14 pesos and the Cuban administrator earned thousands. That's how things were. They treated us badly and beat the kids. If a woman complained and asked to be paid for her hour of overtime, they'd fire her. They had their orders, and they were the ones who carried out the repression.”
“They used to give us horrible jobs that broke our backs, but nobody could say 'that's overdoing it' because they'd tell you 'well, just don't show up tomorrow'. The bosses were always firing anybody they felt like, and the worker had no rights at all. There was no first-aid equipment, and if somebody asked for something, he'd lose his job. The judge was always on good terms with the company.”
“There was a lot of tobacco, some livestock and a little coffee. Some peasants had their own little plots of land, but the only ones who got loans were those who already had 150 acres or more. They, in turn, lent a little money to those who only had five or six acres. In time, we all had debts, and they would take away our land. 'Move over a little bit; give me this little plot; you owe me too much.' That's the way the middle-size landowners talked, and that's the way they expanded their property, taking away our land for debt money. That's the kind of relationship there was. The middle-size land owner pushed the peasants off their land and, little by little, grew to be a large landowner. But when the large landowners had their parties, they only invited their own people. The small and the medium-size farmers never participated in those parties.”
“The people were for and against Somoza at the same time. How can I explain it? The Conservatives were just a few old men, and the Sandinista Front still didn't have any influence around here. Only a few people knew what it was, but we did hear some people talk about it. There were other old men around here who had fought with General Sandino. They would tell us that Sandino was for the poor people. 'They're following in Sandino's footsteps,' they would say when we heard things about the Sandinista Front. We knew that the 'muchachos' weren't too far away and that they had attacked a few villages on the road to Ocotal. Germán Pomares fought around here, near the Honduran border. We knew all about it, and even though we didn't dare scream it from the rooftops, sometimes we'd say 'That Sandinista Front is going to come by here and beat the hell out of those pro-Batista Cubans.' That's all. And that's the way we were when the victory came.”
A half-hearted beginning“On July 19, , when we told the Guardsmen that the Sandinista Army was heading for Jalapa, they took off like jack rabbits. They stripped off their uniforms and ran off toward Honduras in their underwear and barefoot. There were about 70 of them. They left their weapons right here. That's when the weaknesses became apparent. Nobody was sure the Sandinistas were going to be good for the people. If people had been sure, they wouldn't have allowed the guardsmen to go running off like that. Everyone had some kind of weapon. Some of us had shotguns, others had pistols, and others had machetes, but I don't think anybody really understood what was happening.”
“The rich people from around here left for Honduras. People looted the houses of the Cubans and the large landowners. Refugees who had gone into hiding in Honduras came back and wanted to take over the houses of the Guardsmen who had fled. People were carrying television sets on their backs, and some had sacks full of things they had looted. At the beginning, most of us thought the revolution was like a big Christmas celebration. The time had come to be happy and to have our own little things, even if they were stolen. We wouldn't have to make an effort anymore. This kind of attitude lasted until the end of 1979. The revolutionary authorities began to come up here to work in the different districts, but they couldn’t do every much because the people didn't understand what was going on.”
“The problem was serious in the countryside. There was a lack of discipline on the job, and there were also Somocistas who pretended not to be at the different work places. It was a real mess, with little understanding of what the revolution was meant to be. Those responsible for state farms were wasting fuel, having accidents with the vehicles they were given, embezzling funds. The banks that dealt with the coops were lending money to almost anyone. We borrowed money to get married, to buy a bicycle…”
“Well, we decided we were now in a free country and nobody was going to push us around. We'd had enough of that with Batista's Cubans… So we decided that we were all going to work however we wanted.”
“The Literacy Campaign helped us gain some political awareness. The poorest peasants were the ones who got the most out of it. They found out for the first time what the cooperative movement was all about. It seems hard to believe, but there were a lot of peasants living near the border who knew more about Honduras than about Jalapa. During the campaign, we learned what Nicaragua was.”
“In 1981 and 1982 there were serious problems in the understanding of what a union was. Some thought its only function was to demand improvements. Others thought its purpose was to put a yoke around the workers' necks and drive them blindly to produce as much as possible. Others thought that it was nothing more than a sport. They wanted to have their own land and pay their dues. That was all the commitment they wanted. It was hard to get everyone to understand, to get used to meetings and discussions. All in all, the organization got underway very slowly.”
“The big problem in the city was the provisions. Things like beans and milk weren't arriving regularly. And a lot of people were complaining about health care. Now that it was free, the hospital was always full. People came down in large groups, and it was impossible to care for all of them. There wasn't sufficient transportation either. Then there was the problem with the bureaucracy. You had to go asking Joe Blow for permission to see Mr. So-and-so, and if you didn't, they wouldn't take care of you. The peasants complained less. They were in their glory with the revolution. Never before had they received rice, beans, and milk for their children on a regular basis. They were demanding land; everybody wanted land. The coops were set up mostly to provide credit and machinery, even though there still wasn't a real community spirit. The peasants were feeling good about things. The agricultural workers were pressuring for jobs. There had been a lot of unemployment because the Cubans would have one man do the work of three in order to exploit him and make more money. It was hard to get everything straightened out, but we were seeing changes everywhere we looked.”
“Though we had made progress and were working, we still weren't putting all our heart into it toward the end of 1981. That's the way things were when the fighting, the kidnappings and the murders started.”
Defending the landThe Somoza Guardsmen who escaped to Honduras soon began their efforts to undermine the future that the present was already announcing. The new US administration quickly provided the arms they needed to attack, harass, threaten and attempt to destroy Nicaragua's hope for a new future. Counterrevolutionary bands began to attack border areas and extensive rural regions within Nicaragua. Next came the infiltration of the “task forces” and then the war itself.
The contradictions helped the people's understanding to mature. A new spirit of hope had moved people to act and to form unions, cooperatives, adult education classes, etc. These efforts were attacked with violence and cruelty, and people began to see more clearly than ever before what Somocismo really meant. They were directly confronted with the reality of the counterrevolution and US support for it.
From the time Reagan took office in January 1981, US aggression in Central America had been chiefly concentrated on El Salvador, where the administration was intent on destroying the FMLN. It became increasingly apparent that, instead of being defeated, the FMLN was growing in military strength. Frustrated by its lack of success in El Salvador, the US government turned its sights toward Nicaragua in March 1982, stepping up attempts to overthrow the FSLN by way of the Honduran army and counterrevolutionaries who had begun to train in the US soon after Reagan moved into the White House. Jalapa felt the blows more strongly than any other part of Nicaragua.
“There were already counterrevolutionary bands before March 1982, before the state of emergency, but they weren't coordinated. As of March 1982, they've been better coordinated and have been receiving support from the Honduran army. We can see with our own eyes the support they're getting. In March the bands moved up a notch and became counterrevolutionary units. They were attacking us here in Jalapa every two or three days. They wanted to scare us. There were killing and kidnappings. They would come into the communities and try to convince the peasants to go off and join them. Those tactics were most feasible in the zones located very close to the border. There are no roads and no communication by radio, telephone or telegraph with Nicaragua, but the Honduran and counterrevolutionary radios come in strong. Besides, Honduras has a road that runs parallel to the border, and they can visit all the different communities in just about one hour.”
“People would say that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, was on the side of the National Guard and that Nicaragua wouldn't be able to hold out. They said they were fighting to root communism out of Nicaragua. They said that communism was the people working for the government. They told us that nothing would belong to us and that we wouldn't love God anymore. They even talked about food: they said the communist were rationing it. Lots of people believed these things.”
“The Guardsmen arrived at our small house. They grabbed my youngest son to take him away. 'Don't take him away from me,' I begged them as I threw myself down on my knees. The Guardsman shoved and kicked me out of the way. He didn't pay any attention to me. He told my boy: 'Get up on that horse, hurry up.' I just had enough time to say: 'May God protect you, son.' 'Don't worry, mom, I'll be back soon.' I couldn't get up off the ground. I just watched as they took my son away. I don't know if he's dead or alive, but I imagine that they've killed him by now. Those Guardsmen are animals.”
“They took her away. She'd just given birth one month before. They gang-raped her. My son tried to resist them, so they killed him, pulled out his intestines, and filled them with stones. Then they busted up his head and his legs and left his body, along with others, on the other side of the ravine. They cut my aunt's and uncle's throats and then cut out their intestines, too. They filled them with paper and dirt, and then they went and cut out their eyes. They also took one woman's seven-year-old daughter, raped her and then killed her.”
“They've left mothers without their children just because they've felt like it. They say that they're going to liberate Nicaragua again, but Nicaragua already was liberated. We mothers have been filled with grief. We've lost half of the fruits of our wombs to those bastards that the US government supports. They come and take away our men, shamelessly carry away our daughters and burn homes. Many people have lost everything they had. That US government should soften its heart of stone and admit that Nicaragua is already free, that we want peace.”
“They were laying ambushes and putting four-pronged iron bars on the road from Jalapa to Ocotal. They wanted the rice to remain here and be wasted, because we thresh our rice outside Jalapa. The ambushes were a real pain in the ass because the truck drivers didn't want to come into this region; they were too afraid. The contras were also going into certain villages. More people were getting scared. That's when we decided to start handing out guns in the different communities.”
Weapons had to be given to a population that was very scattered and insolate. The attacks forced thousands of people to move, damaged the economy, and cast a shadow on agricultural plans for the zone. It was time to change direction and implement resettlement programs, self-defense and an acceleration of the cooperative plans.
“There were ten border posts in Jalapa at that time. The enemy had attacked all of them once, twice, or even three times. They were really after those posts. They were never able to take even one of those posts, even though they were defended by only 15 people or less, while they attacked with 60 or even 100. They attacked the posts and continued to burn homes and farms, kidnapping and killing people. The population had to leave the border area and move down toward the valley of Jalapa. More than 20 communities were left deserted. Just counting those who had to leave up until December 1982, 4,000 people had to be relocated. Some families had to flee half-naked. They left their farms and houses, their machinery, their tools and everything else behind. We had to find some way to fight back.”
“In order to react to this aggression, we had to build resettlements for those who were relocated. Land belonging to the states and to the public sector was given to help set up states farms. Some land was also bought from certain producers. We had to explain everything to those peasants who had gone through so much suffering and had lost all they had with the attacks. We also had to build health centers and facilities for the children: dining halls, day-care centers, and schools. Here in Jalapa, Alcides and the others from the regional committee really responded well to the situation. We needed to provide services such as water, electricity, and telephones. We also had to lend the peasants better tools so they could produce again. This was when we decided to organized a self-defense system.”
“We built bomb shelters to protect ourselves against air raids and mortar fire, which is really hell. We also organized civil-defense brigades and established communication signals so that we could support each other and sent out alerts to let others know where the enemy was. We also set up surveillance teams that were on guard duty both day and night, all the time. It was a lot of effort to organize all that.”
“Our people understood what the enemy wanted: death and the return of Somocismo. The killings, kidnappings and burned farms made that plain to them. The whole war of terror and their dreams about capturing Jalapa ended up working against the contras like a boomerang and defeating them. When we saw they were after, we began to organize our defense and production like never before.”
One of the most important consequences of the attacks was an acceleration in the development of the agrarian reform through the creation of new cooperatives. The peasants who had been forced to move began to receive rich land in the valley. They received it as a community, and they also received weapons with which to defend themselves.
“We reacted to each attack with new strength, strength for the battalions, the cooperative, the union and for education. The attacks have changed our lives. We used to live far apart, way up on top of a hill or way down in the hollow. Now we all live together and we all watch out for the good of the group.”
Late 1982 was a dramatic time for Nicaragua. Both the US government and the counterrevolutionaries were talking about a “final offensive.” Jalapa had to resist increasingly heavy attacks. In the counterrevolutionaries' plans, Jalapa was to become a “liberated” territory. The other objectives of the stepped-up attacks were to harm the coffee harvest and wear down the Nicaraguan army, which had begun to fight alongside the militia units and the armed peasants.
“The attacks were getting worse. Before, there would be 80, 100 or 150 counterrevolutionaries armed with rifles. Then things became very serious. They wanted to take Jalapa. Now there were 1,000 or more men. They made it three kilometers into Nicaragua, and we defeated them. They were very well armed, but they suffered a lot of casualties. We captured rocket launchers, 60 and 80-mm. mortars… The battalions from Jalapa fought alongside soldiers from León, Managua, Masaya and Chinandega.”
“We consider the coffee harvest as a victory. Despite the war, we harvested 60% of the crop. This was a real exploit, but it cost us lives. Pedrito and Guadalupe, two children from a volunteer brigade, were killed in an ambush. The Barreda couple was also killed. They were both devoted Christians and Sandinistas. We had to harvest with a basket and a gun, and we had to break through the enemy's encirclement more than once. It was a real battle.”
The “C Plan” began in February of 1983, with task forces entering the departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa. In March and April, Jalapa was the target of another heavy onslaught. The purpose of these attacks had changed. The contras were trying to return to Honduras after being defeated and cornered.
“We could see the support the Hondurans were providing for the contras: there were trucks and ambulances on the border for their wounded… The contras destroyed about 20 tobacco sheds. Some were full, and some were empty. Our losses amounted to millions of córdobas. We were told 160 million córdobas, a real fortune. The population was in danger. We had to protect the children and the elderly people. When we saw the extent of the attack, we realized that we were only prepared to defend ourselves against the contras, not against attacks like that one by the Honduran army. The small shelters that we'd dug weren't for this kind of war. We had to change our plans.”
These were the months when the civilian population was the most involved in the war. The big battles of Jalapa took place between March and June of 1983. Teotecacinte, on the very tip of Jalapa, was punished by heavy mortar fire for ten straight days.
“We succeeded in organizing self-defense, civil defense and circular defense in all the different zones. There were 200-300% increases in the number of militia soldiers, and people dug thousands of yards of trenches. It was really something to see people digging shelters and trenches after sweating through a whole day of regular work.”
“We saw that the plans aimed at Nicaragua were the plans aimed at Jalapa: the plans to destroy the revolution. The Honduran army threw three battalions into this attack. When they realized that they wouldn't be able to take all of Jalapa, they decided to concentrate their efforts on Teotecacinte. They also unloaded their fire power on a small group of heroes at the state farm in El Porvenir, where tobacco is grown. They grow their tobacco right up to the fence that forms the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. The Honduran road is only 30 yards away. Forty men resisted there without being defeated. After six days and nights of fighting, they enemy forces ran out of ammunition and were worn down by fatigue, so they decided to withdraw. Seventeen heroes from the reserves lost their lives there. The enemy has destroyed the tobacco sheds and the workers’ newly built homes. They took El Porvenir, but not for long because they had to retreat. We lost lives, and it was a hard economic blow for us. We lost 8 million córdobas and the fruits of a lot of hard work, but they only occupied two square miles of Nicaragua and then had to go running off.”
“We thought we were going to be afraid during the shooting, but we weren't. We actually felt brave. You feel that the truth is on your side, and you forget your fear. You also feel a strong tendency that tells you not to kill, but then you see that they're the ones who are coming to kill you, and you think that we need to in a just society. You have a bunch of different feelings at the same time. There's nobody around here who wants to kill. If they don't attack us, no one's going to kill them. Nobody in Jalapa wants to kill. We'd much rather be producing instead of being here right on the border where things are so difficult. But if we abandon the border area, they'll destroy everything, and we can't allow that.”
“Everybody was fighting that afternoon in Teotecacinte. Those who still hadn't joined the militias were asking for guns. A 74-year-old woman came to ask for guns for herself and her two granddaughters, who were 7 and 11 years old. Because of their ages, we couldn't give them guns, but they gave us their courage. I'll never forget it.”
Revolutionary leaders traveled to El Porvenir to offer the workers a new location far from the border where they could work in safer conditions. However, the workers refused to leave. They said they wanted to stay there on the front lines.
“Now that we're in battle formation, we won't retreat. Nobody ran during the fighting in El Porvenir and Teotecacinte. We know what it would have meant to give up even a little bit of land to the contras. We knew that moving back would mean giving up El Porvenir, and giving up El Porvenir would mean giving up Teotecacinte, and so on until they reached Managua. No, we won't yield even one inch of our land.”
A new awarenessThroughout Nicaragua, a new political consciousness is developing. It is being expressed through widespread participation in the tasks of defense and in the unions, the coops and the different structures of political power. Even the US ambassador admitted in a radio interview: “If democracy is participation, then there is a great deal of democracy in Nicaragua.” This democracy can be seen in union elections, in the new relationships that are developing between union leadership and the rank and file, in the newly discovered capacity to stand up and be heard by private or state administrative bodies and in the new structures for discussion and coordination, which have not yet been perfected but had never before existed in this country.
Since the difficult war days in 1983, no one has been taking things easy in Jalapa. The “beak of Jalapa” has once again become an important objective in the new counterrevolutionary plans, which were to begin in January, at the same time as the electoral process. Popular participation has grown. Out of an active population of 6,222 in the municipality of Jalapa, 2,000 have already joined reserve battalions. The level of commitment has also increased, for the reservists not only defend the territory of Jalapa; they are also available to fight anywhere in Nicaragua. There has been growth in union organization, in production and in the cooperatives.
“The aggression has helped us develop our awareness as workers, making us understand very clearly that we can't do much alone; we have to work together and we have to organize ourselves. We've been developing confidence in our own capacity to organize ourselves.”
“A worker's job has a tremendous impact on him. Well, we've seen that what really supports us is the tobacco crop. We've seen how the counterrevolutionaries have attacked our tobacco and our sheds. So the worker says to himself: 'I'd rather be dead; I don't want to be left without a job.' That's how we began to understand things. We had to defend our work place and the raw materials. The first of us to go into the trenches were workers: We learned more while we were there. Now we say: 'We're going to study, produce and fight.”
“The peasants love their land, the land they were given. They say: 'I was given this land. I'll die here for it. They won't drive me away from it. I'd rather die here for what belongs to me and to the rest of us.”
“Our tobacco productivity was greater than ever before in Jalapa. In 1981-82, 40% of what we produced was high-quality tobacco for export. This year that figure was up to 80%. We'd never seen that kind of productivity here in the region. With a higher level of aggression and in spite of the attacks, we were much more efficient. The same thing happened with rice production. We succeeded in producing two tons per acre. We had never produced so much with such high quality as this year, even though the bullets were raining down on us.”
“Now we're all in the union. We elect the board of directors for a certain period of time. We elect those who are most capable and most conscious. They have to inform the members every month about how the cooperative is running. Whenever there are problems or new things come up, we hold special meetings. The whole union meets with the administration when there are special problems. We'd never experienced anything like that before.”
“When we think of those who have been killed, we realize that we must be more diligent in our surveillance and in all our tasks. That's nothing compared to sacrificing your life. But it's what we're here for: to defend the revolution with our sacrifices. And our rearguard is people who trust in us; our rear guard is Nicaragua.”
“Here we are in the trenches. It's too bad if we die, but, as Sandino said, others will follow us. Dying for the people is what I call being a Christian.”
Despite and, in many ways, because of the hardships that its people have had to face, Jalapa’s political and economic development has moved ahead at an impressive pace. In certain other regions of Nicaragua, the counterrevolutionaries have had more success in doing damage to Nicaragua's economy, in intimidating its people and in slowing down its revolution. Jalapa can only be a source of tremendous inspiration for the sectors of Nicaragua that must deal with the counterrevolution on a daily basis.