Forgetting Nicaragua

It's not that I'd forgotten about Nicaragua. Like the guilt that sneaks up on you hearing from a relative you owe too many Christmas cards to, or the friend whose cookware you'd borrowed years ago and never returned, it grabbed me in the form of a book I found, going through old boxes at the storage unit, souvenir of a long ago journey, a children's story, in bright color, jungle scenes, a trip down the Rio Coco in the heart of the Central American rainforest, two children in a dugout canoe going to rescue their sick grandfather, helped out when things go bad by a Sandinista medevac chopper, nicely printed in Miskito and Spanish on facing pages -- a talisman reminding me of my own connection to a time and place.

For people of certain generation, Americans, that is, and of course, progressive ones, to speak of Nicaragua is to speak of a certain kind of hope, a hope that people -- even very poor ones with minimal resources and big enemies can liberate themselves from the bonds of poverty, of misery, of disease, want and ignorance. And for people of that same generation, it is an idea that this can be done not in some draconian, say it, Leninist way, or in the paternalistic cigar chomping mode of a Castro, but in a low-key way, even a friendly way.

For somehow it was a kind of oddball team, a 'junta' as it was styled, but different from the typical gang of generals, that emerged with a program for national renovation in a small country in Central America whose startling backwardness and poverty were alleviated mainly by a better ratio of people to land than some other neighbors, and a tradition of anti-colonial struggle. Emerged from the grip of a nastier than average dictatorship that survived by making itself useful to the ruling families and the big neighbor up North. These were the 'terceristas' offering a 'third way' to socialist prosperity.

As a young filmmaker, finishing his first documentary in the early Eighties, and speaking Spanish, coming from California, where Latin American culture underlies the mainstream Anglo one like a warm underground spring that can bubble forth, in song, poetic or culinary explosions, the interest in events in Central American came naturally.

Filmmakers of course flocked to Nicaragua. The land of poets and revolutionaries, with their non-sectarian revolution, none of the anti-clericalism of the typical Marxists, this place that featured a priest among its leadership as well as Cuban advisors, was a Mecca. The joke I would tell in the bar -- When you arrive in the San Salvador airport you see a large billboard advertising Pepsicola -- "Pepsi Rinde Más"... (Pepsi gives you more) While arriving visitors in Managua get a billboard saying "Nicaragua, No se vende, Ni se rinde" "Nicaragua, Doesn't Sell Itself, Doesn't Yield."

Yet for me, going to Nicaragua was not a direct choice, but rather a case of filmmaking in reverse. Hired by veteran Columbian-Irish journalist Ana Carrigan to do an editing job I jumped into the typical editor's journey of learning about a country from afar, through material that someone else had shot.

The story was an obscure one - featuring the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. The Sandinistas had got off to a bad start with the Miskitos. There were killings, and misunderstandings. Some Miskito groups had joined the Contras, creating a second front in the war. A strong need to secure this territory had resulted in the first serious autonomy agreement between a national government and an indigenous region in the hemisphere. But as a documentary film, there was something missing. The situation was very difficult to portray, and the result seemed thin. Where were the Miskitos that were the main players? I looked the film over a couple of times. As far as I could tell, the film simply needed more footage, and it needed to be from the Miskito Coast. Ana's surprise answer was to suggest that we go. A few weeks later, we were on a plane heading toward Central America.

Can you really know another country? Ontology lurks immediately: What is it to know? And what are the elements that constitute knowledge of a land, a place, a culture? I can know how my grandmother treated me as a child, but have no idea how a Nicaraguan grandmother treated her nietos, neither half a century ago nor today. I know what rice and beans taste like, but my experience is framed more by my early trips to California Mexican restaurants than by my mother's hand over a hot stove. Even my archetypal mental stove, a gas-burning mid-century model with a clock and lots of chrome, fixes my memories to my own land, my own upbringing.

Of course there were the Spanish classes, and Californians learned a lot of Spanish colonial history, but frankly; Nicaragua ranks low on the list. I can only remember one poem from Mr. Schrump's high school Spanish class, a fragment of Rubén Darío's "A Margarita Debayle"

Éste era un rey que tenía
un palacio de diamantes,
una tienda hecha del día
y un rebaño de elefantes,

un kiosco de malaquita,
un gran manto de tisú,
y una gentil princesita,
tan bonita
tan bonita como tú.

Ultimately, I have what? My memories. And what are these? Like the princess in the poem, I reach delicately to grab a sparkling object from the firmament and hope for the best. And there is a kind of fairytale quality to my own memories - unearthed after twenty years as fresh as the day they were minted, of a land that had a curious quality of wonder.

The sight of the lake, strangely dead, and the forbidding mountain next to it, both standouts in a world otherwise alive with life, swirling with color. A visit to a volcano whose vast crater clouded with steam and resounding to the sound of thousands of brilliant green parrots cavorting in flocks. This curious "virtual country" where inquiring for an address would get you an answer like "Two blocks down from where the movie theater used to be". This was Managua after an earthquake and a revolution. The young people running around in uniforms. The female doctor in her twenties who provides healthcare for an entire neighborhood single-handedly. The Los Angeles style villas on the hill full of bureaucrats, diplomats, aid organizations and just plain squatters. The contrast between a foreign elite shopping at the dollar store and the locals still living on rice beans and Flor de Caña, the local rum. The literacy campaign, the war with its constant tales of massacres in the highlands and Big Power maneuvering. This Managua was a stark contrast to the other Central American cities I knew.

In fact, I had just come from doing a story in the slums of Port au Prince, a place dominated by anarchy, bribery and the most horrifying misery imaginable. Black children in rags with hair the color of burnt rust and thrust out bellies that would send TV viewers racing for their wallets if they were from Ethiopia were the norm in Cité Soleil. Here in Nicaragua, kids were learning to read, or teaching their elders. Far from being a home for bribery, everything was good old legalistic red tape. Our destination, the Región Autonomista Atlantico Norte, was a war zone and no foreigners were allowed to go there.

Ana, with a voice like Catherine Hepburn's and a journalist's determination, cut through the red tape by tracking down Comandante Borge at some speech and award ceremony… Two days later we were on our way to the Atlantic Coast.

The eastern side of Nicaragua, the "Miskito Coast" of legend, turned out to be almost totally separate from the rest of the country. The single dirt road, already poor, was threatened by the Contras. The one elderly DC-3 was having engine trouble so AeroNica didn't look like an option. The answer was seats on a small private plane. The passengers consisted of me, the cameraman, Ana, and the mayor of Bluefields, a cheerful young black man who chatted with us in English, the language of choice in his part of the country. An hour or so got us to Bluefields where we dropped off the mayor and headed up the coast to Puerto Cabezas, a port on the Rio Coco close to the Honduran border.

The town was sleepy. No paving, and the one hotel had recently burned down, so we stayed in the local barracks with the Sandinista government employees. After a couple of days poking around, we discovered that our goal, the Miskito communities along the river, were close but hard to reach. There were simply no passenger vehicles in the whole region. The recent autonomy agreement had resulted in a sort of truce, but the main Miskito comandantes were still unhappy and some were playing footsie with the Contras. The boarder was still very much a war zone.

We went and had coffee with the military commander of the region. Yes there was a chance to go out with a military escort. But as filmmakers that was the last thing we wanted. Finally it turned out we could go out with the Moravian bishop who went to check up on the towns along the river to check on the war zone faithful who mainly belong to this originally Czech church.

That strange journey through a jungle paradise of palm huts and the curiously Middle European Moravian churches, the linguistic mix of Spanish, Miskito and Caribbean English. In the back of an old pickup racing across the mud roads at top speed, hoping we wouldn't bounce out, or lose our equipment. Apparently the driver felt that if we hit a mine going quickly, we would be past it by the time it blew up. I felt the ride and the issue acutely. Two reporters I'd met died when their car hit a mine on the Honduran side.

For a documentary the end result was inconclusive. There were problems, but I was used to Mexico and Guatemala, the Philippines, where a military presence meant pillage, death and fear, not to mention all the paraphernalia of 'counter-insurgency: spies, camps, and exotic weaponry. The Sandinistas were clearly trying hard to be different. (The Sandinistas had in fact tried to relocate people away from the river - the heart of the conflict zone - and that this had been at the core of some of the worst violence and problems between Miskitos and the central government.) And visiting this beautiful jungle region, with its little clusters of palm houses on tall risers set under the trees, and the deceptively placid Rio Coco behind made their desire to sit tight totally comprehensible. Who would want to leave? Autonomia? These people were afraid, but of the war in general, and mainly concerned with the extreme difficulty of lives that depended totally on what they could grow and fish out of the river. In the short run autonomy was a plus mainly in that it meant a decrease in military activity.

Back in town we went to the radio station. Given the almost total isolation of the Miskito villages, the radio was a key player in the local culture. The CIA had in fact set up their own transmitter on the Honduran side to compete. The local radio station had a line out the front of people who would write messages on scraps of paper and hand them through the window so the DJ could read them between songs.

The music was wistful ballads. The two words of Miskito I remember are 'Wanki Mairín" or 'Beautiful Woman" a feature of most of the songs, typically played on a kind of guitar with percussion beat out in one instance on a turtle shell with a nail. These local songs were mixed, as they were everywhere in Nicaragua, with the English language lyrics of the Bluefields bands doing AfroCaribbean dance music. Everybody Likes Bananas being the hit single when I was there.

And then of course, the Miskitos came to us, in the form of one Comandante who was in town with a band of armed fighters. The Sandinista military presence was real, but not obtrusive. And these Indians with their M-16s were a bit frightening. We interviewed the sullen and charismatic young leader, but we didn't learn much. Were the Miskitos unhappy? Yes. They were free to maintain their own military units, but they weren't getting the financial support that they said was part of the deal. Somehow, being in the middle of things and talking to people was no guarantee of getting a handle on the situation. A good lesson for a journalist, and besides, the reality signified in a way that made the narrative compelling if nothing else.

At least that was what I told myself in the bar, a big old sailor's saloon, for Puerto Cabeza's is a port, where the only beverage, I was told, had been Flor de Caña for the last 4 days. There was a truckload of 'Toña' the Nicaraguan beer overdue, and until it arrived, the rum was it. And when the truck, actually a small convoy, arrived it was like a ship coming in. The drivers were feted. Beer was passed around. I bought the driver a drink. He looked worn out. The run was dangerous, and in order to keep up the speed they needed on the terrible roads, he informed me, they had tightened up the suspension by welding chains between the chassis and the axles mountings making for a very bumpy ride.

What do these memories add up to? A visit to a place unknown even to most Nicaraguans. A country that crawled with journalists, aid workers, diplomats, who all washed away like an exotic tide, leaving a land that is, ten or fifteen years later, poorer than ever, and with its citizens scattered across the United States and Canada. A country that is almost never in the news, except a few corruption stories, and a bit of US saber rattling around the weapons the Nicaraguan army still holds. One 'Where are they now?" story by Tina Rosenberg recently notes that GNP is lower than under the Sandinistas, but that the country is very democratic.

I've never been back since the war ended. Ana's film was branded Sandinista propaganda, and didn't get on TV. When I was doing research for this story, I ran across a website from an aid group. Their account of a trip to the Rio Coco sounded like little has changed. A map reveals still only one dodgy road running to the East side of the country. The autonomy from Managua has stayed, but never been reinforced with serious resources. The government apparently is still fighting rebels. People are still very poor, and very isolated.

Yet somehow, although things seem not much different than twenty years ago, I would like to think that the people of Nicaragua retain some special place in history for having that moment, a position that hasn't been permanently filled yet, where a certain kind of courage, of idealism, of pragmatic belief in human potential can matter profoundly. Particularly now, as we look at the bleak offerings of corporate globalization and fundamentalism of various stripes, the very human offering that Nicaragua represented is as important as it ever was -- A kind of stepping stone to a future where language has meaning, where colors have clarity and brilliance. The guilt? I still feel it. The memory? It lives on.

ML 7/16/05

FOOTNOTE: As I finish the piece there is a footnote. On July 13, 1854, a hundred and sixty-one years and three days ago, the US Navy made the port of San Juan del Norte on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast the first undefended urban center to be destroyed by naval bombardment, apparently in response to an insult to the US ambassador. Previously, ships had exchanged fire with shore military batteries, but this step opened a new page in the history of warfare. Since the name of this web project is 'Fallout' it is worth noting this moment, and contemplating its relationship with the more recent anniversaries of the obliteration of the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan during WWII.