Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

Contact me     Home page     Table of Contents

Nicaragua — 1983

Return to Introduction and Nicaragua Table of Contents.

Sandino Augusto Sandino.

#01 Fonseca portrait Carlos Fonseca. Fonseca, Tomas Borge and Silvio Mayorga founded the FSLN in 1961. Fonseca and Mayorga both died at the hands of Somoza's National Guard. Tomas Borge survived, and became Minister of the Interior in the Sandinista government. He is still living, as far as I know.

#02 Peasant hovel A common peasant hovel. This is the kind of housing for the poor that the Sandinistas hoped to eliminate over time.

Apologists for the Somoza regime obviously never read the opinion of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:

"half the population lived in a state of absolute poverty. Absolute poverty, the product of poor distribution of wealth, has been defined as 'a condition of life so limited by malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, low life expectancy, and high infant mortality as to be below any rational definition of human decency.'"

[*IACHR "Report on the Human Rights Situation in Nicaragua," No.7, p. 151, June 30, 1981. Cited in "Report of the Amnesty International Missions to the Republic of Nicaragua," August 1979, January 1980 and August 1980, p. 43. *]

#03 Planetarium hovel A common Planetarium hovel. The Planetarium was an upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of Managua. Business owners, high-level National Guardsmen, and other assorted wealthy Nicaraguans lived in neighborhoods like this. (This place is not the most impressive of the lot, by any means.) Many of them left Nicaragua in the last days of the insurrection, or soon after the Sandinistas took power.

The new Sandinista government confiscated the abandoned properties for its own use, and for use among other things as consulates and as comfortable lodging for peace and justice groups like ours. (The above was our residence while we were in Nicaragua. The government provided our meals, laundry services, and transportation. Hopefully, the trip fee more than covered the government's expenses.)

Contrary to the impression given by the President's propaganda mill, there were still plenty of wealthy Nicaraguans who suffered very little at the hands of the Sandinistas, as long as they contibuted postively to the rebuilding of the country. Primarily this consisted of simply continuing their business activites without playing games with the currency and without secretly de-capitalizing their enterprizes. The Sandinista leadership was criticized by Anerican private property worshippers for moving into the mansions of the Somocistas who had left the country. I figured they had earned them.

#04 Boy in crosshairs The depiction of Nicaragua-as-child is entirely apt. Nicaragua under Somoza was kept in a state of political, social, and economic infantilism. The Sandinistas, young, and completely without experience in governing, would need all the help they coud could get in rebuilding the war-ravaged country. To their everlasting credit, many European nations rose to the challenge, much to Washington's displasure.

This poster was printed by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a progressive group comprised of action-prone UUs. It still hangs on the wall at the UUSC office. From December 1979 to August 1987 the UUSC conducted Congressional fact-finding tours of Nicaragua, so as to correct the propaganda put out by President Reagan's Office of Public Diplomacy.

The UUSC also had development projects in Nicaragua addressing women's rights and health issues, supporting such groups as the Flor de Sacuanjoche, a clinic run by the Women's Secretariat of the Farmworkers Association; Christian Medical Action, which provided health care on the Atlantic coast; the Center for Information and Consulting Services in Health (CISAS); the SI Mujer Center for Integrated Services for Women; and the Jinotega Health Care and Education Program.

#05 Herodes Herods search for the child so that they can kill him. ... No to Intervention in Central America

#06 Kids Hundreds of beautiful children like these were killed without mercy by the contras.

Some visitors to this site might say, following Ronald Reagan's jibe at Jimmy Carter during their 1980 presidential debate, "there you go again, Bill", as if I am unfairly trading on sentimentality; as if the killing of children in the pursuit of U.S. hegemony should be treated as a ho-hum issue; as if in the commission of such crimes, America is merely carrying on the glorious traditions common to all great nations—the Romans come to mind here; as if, in some unlikely future the Nicaraguan majority does indeed benefit from Washington's neo-liberal policies, the deaths of these children will be justified.

#07 Young militiaman Some young people are trained in homeland defense. This young fellow is carrying the ubiquitous Russian-made AK-47 automatic rifle. It is fully loaded and the safety was on.

#08 Health clinic One of the first orders of business was to provide health services to the poor. The Sandinistas tried to cover all the bases: immunization, nutrition and hygiene education. Psychological counseling was needed by victims of Presient Reagan's "freedom fighters."

In the early '80s the Sandinistas eliminated polio in Nicaragua through a country-wide vaccination program. The incidence of other diseases was also drastcially reduced as hundreds of caring young doctors and nurses went into the campo to bring medicines and education to the poor campesinos. Finally, though, the contra attacks on clinics and personnel took their toll. I believe that Reagan embargoed medical supplies as well as material supplies; in any case, medical supplies were hard to come by. Today, many of the diseases the Sandinistas were able to control or eliminate are back with a vengeance. Exquisite punishment for the people who dared to challenge U.S. authority.

#09 Mothers and infantsMothers and children waiting for service at the clinic.

#11 nutrition 6-9 months A poster showing the nutritional needs of the child. Other charts for other age ranges were also prominently displayed.

#13 Breast-feeding billboard Your milk is irreplaceable, and it comes with love

The Sandinistas here are trying to counter the aggressive marketing of infant formula by American and European companies. Poor Third World mothers would read or hear the ads—or make use of the free samples that formaula makers provided to the hospitals where they gave birth— and they believed that formula was better for their infants than their own breast milk. Moreover, they succumbed to the ads' siren song that they would be "modern" if they fed their babies formula instead of nursing them.

Formula manufacturers, like Switzerland's Nestle', made sure that local stores in even the remotest rural areas were well-stocked with formula, which wasn't exactly cheap. So, the mothers would buy what they could afford, then dilute it. And, because they didn't diligently follow instructions to thoroughly boil the water before mixing the formula—firewood usually being a scarce and expensive commodity as well—the infants were exposed to typical Third World water-borne diseases. The infants were thus deprived as well of the immune factors in breast milk that protect them from disease while they are nursing. Not surprisingly, thousands of these tiny beneficiaries of Western progress died of malnutrition or disease. The bereaved mothers would decorate the graves of their dead babies with empty Nestle' formula cans.

In response, first-world progressives launched a strong campaign against such aggressive marketing of infant formula in the Third World—it began in Europe, then moved to the U.S., where it really took off. At the height of the campaign, I stood outside supermarkets asking people to boycott Nestle', and asking them to sign petitions urging the company to stop its marketing practices. One guy quipped as he passed by: "Nestle' birth control".

#14 Literacy museum Illiteracy was endemic among the poor, so another important order of business was to teach them to read.

#15 Literacy museum, diorama Hundreds of young people went into the remote campo to teach thousands of illiterate peasants to read. Even with the rudimentary skills that were necessarily all that could be taught, the campesinos gained confidence and a sense that they were participating in the rebuilding of the country.

The young teachers, and their pupils, were among the primary targets of the contras.

#16 grain silos Grain silos. These kinds of infrastructure improvements were also main targets of the contras. Virutally all of the development assistance to Nicaragua came from Europe, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc. The Reagan administration blocked World Bank loans to Nicaragua.

#17 Mary Hartmann National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Director: Mary Hartmann, responsible for investigating charges of human rights violations by the Sandinista government as well as by the contras.

She said that the Sandinistas were diligent about trying to prevent, and in punishing, human rights violations committed by government or military personnel. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports make clear to the discerning reader—the reader able to distinguish between dissimilars—that while the Sandinistas did not have a perfect human rights record, it was exemplary in comparison with any others of Washington's surrogates.

#18a Weekly demo at U.S. Embassy The weekly demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Managua, sponsored by the American religious community living there, and working in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people.

#18b Weekly demo at U.S. EmbassyGroups like ours were plentiful in Nicaragua, so the American Embassy staff behind the fence could always be assured of a fresh crop of compatriots voicing, often singing, their disagreement with U.S. policy.

#19 Street theater 1A bit of street theater to entertain our employees behind the fence.

#20 Street theater 2

#21 Street theater 3

#21a10 Nicaraguan customs office A burned-out Nicaraguan customs office—or some such official designation. In the distance lies Honduras, home to the contra camps that operated with impunity.

The Honduran army was quite happy to have all this military activity taking place in their non-belligerent country. It gave them something to do, and fattened their paychecks.

Even so, the Sandinistas and the Hondurans agreed that "hot pursuit" of contras into Honduran territory by Sandinista defenders, so long as it did not penetrate too deeply, would not constitute grounds for open hostilities between the two countries. Many such "hot pursuit" incursions took place, and it is likely that many of them went unreported by the Honduran military, so as not to provide President Reagan with an excuse to invade Nicaragua.

#21a11 Honduran checkpoint Here, the Panamerican Highway leads past the destroyed Nicaraguan border checkpoint to the Honduran checkpoint in the distance.

#21a12 Lookout duty Lookout duty.

The two photos above were taken from this forward observation post. (The trench containing rocket-propelled grenades is not visible in the picture.) One of our members scans the distant hillsides, looking for contras.

Noel Correa, far left, is our Sandinista guide and mentor. As a militia member himself, he also carried a weapon while here in the militarized zone.

#21a13 Canteen After doing our little bit to defend Nicaragua, we returned to El Espino, a nearby village that had been abandoned because of contra activity.

Here, as a symbolic contribution to the Sandinistas' defense of their country, I'm giving my U.S. Army-issue canteen to the Sandinista squad leader. (It was both the least, and the most, I could do, considering my limited resources.)

The canteen, bought in a surplus store, was a veteran of several High Sierra backpack trips. I have always hoped that the canteen brought as much comfort and stamina to a Sandinista soldier as it had for me.

This picture was taken by John Nichols, author of the Sterile Cuckoo, New Mexico Trilogy, etc. John is indefagitable in the struggle for justice, and he has been a great inspiration to me.

#22a09 Romero poster Why did they assassinate Archbishop Romero?

The Sandinistas and their supporters felt solidarity with the oppressed in neighboring countries.

El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez was a conservative, anti-communist cleric when he was appointed archbishop, but soon learned that the anti-communism of the Salvadoran oligarchy and the U.S. government was merely an excuse to continue repression of the Salvadoran people, with arms and money supplied by the U.S. taxpayer, of course. He became a passionate advocate for the poor, and on March 23, 1980, at Mass, he delivered this message to the oligarchs and the armed forces:

"Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill'. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression"

The next day, March 24, at another Mass, Archbishop Romero was assassinated.

Romero's assassination was a purposful slap-in-the-face to the U.S. The Salvadoran military and the associated paramilitaries, called "a deranged killing machine" by former U.S. Ambassador to El salvador Robert White, knew that they could commit no crime so atrocious that Washington would cut off funds and weapons. In December, 1980, they murdered four American nuns who worked with El Salvador's poor. In November of 1989, they murdered six Jesuit priests, and their housekeeper and her daughter. Through it all, President Reagan maintained his sunny disposition. What a guy.

#22a10 Salvadoran orphans An orphange in Managua. These children's parents were killed by the Salvadoran killing machine.

I recall that the orphange received funding from outside groups, but, considering their own troubles, it was still something of a strain on the Sandinistas to provide for them. They did so gladly.

#23 Masaya, boy with bomb statue Masaya, south of Managua. Masaya was the site of one of the last eruptions of popular opposition to Somoza. (It is also home to a steamy volcano.)

The statue is a memorial to the hundreds of boys, girls, young men and young women who risked their lives opposing the regime.

The boy here is depicted wearing a mask—a replica of the masks worn by indigenous people to satirize the Spanish in early "guerrilla theater".

I own a replica of such a mask; purchased at auction at a fundraiser for the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America, one of America's most active anti-intervention groups. SCITCA finally closed its operations in 1993.

#24 Mural 1 This, and the following two murals are in a popular church in Managua. Many progressive priests and nuns were enthusiastic supporters of the Sandinista experiment, and supportive churches provided a location for the display of revolutionary art. This painting speaks for itself.

#25 Mural 2 I believe that this painting depicts a real young man who was killed by the National Guard for carrying messages for the Sandinistas. Some might be outraged that young people, like this fellow in the painting, and the young fellow above with the AK-47, were recruited into the struggle. On the other hand, Somoza's grip on the country was so vicious, so corrupt, and so overall debilitating that even young people felt they had no future. So why not help the Sandinistas?

In fact, the majority of Nicaragua's wealthy turned against Somoza only when his pathological greed negatively affected their own lifestyles.

#26 Mural 3 Iglesia Santa Maria de Los Angeles, Barrio Riguero.

This mural reflects the support shown by Nicaragua's progressive Catholic clergy for the Sandinistas "preferential option for the poor," known also as "the logic of the majority."

On the other hand, Pope John Paul II was not at all happy with these progressive priests, primarily because their open advocacy of the empowerment of the poor might also someday lead to the poor questioning papal authority.

Indeed, during his March 4 stopover in Nicaragua as part of his 1983 Latin American tour, John Paul publically rebuked Catholic priest and Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, who had remained in the government in disobedience of his Archbishop, Obando y Bravo. Sandinista leaders were waiting to greet him at the airport, and as Cardenal kneeled to kiss the Pope's ring, John Paul withdrew his hand, saying "You need to correct your situation with the Church". (Kinzer, Blood of Brothers, p. 201.)

As the Pope had promised, he made no political statement, meaning that he did not mention, nor condemn, Reagan's atrocious war against the peasantry he purportedly loved so much. This omission was quite reasonably interpreted as support for the war, as Ernesto Cardenal trenchantly observed later: "It has been said that the Pope is very thankful to the CIA for the work it has done in Poland, and that the Pope has come to repay the CIA in Central America." (Kinzer, ibid., p. 202.)

In 1985, John Paul also elevated the contras' own religious mentor, Obando y Bravo, to Cardinal. (Kinzer, ibid., p. 298.)

#27 circus The Asociacion Sandinista de los Trabajadores de la Cultura (ASTC).

The Sandinista Cultural Workers Association was one of many popular organizations in Nicaragua.

The ASTC sponsored our group, and had also arranged for a circus to come to Managua. I don't recall what country the performers came from, but they may well have been from the Eastern Bloc.

#28 Alegria The Sandinista government had sponsored a country-wide Purisima celebration. In Managua there were lots of tables where simple toys and sweets were given out to thousands of children.

The food on the street was always great. It was safe to drink the water out of the tap in Managua and other major cities, although the disruption of water systems by the contras was putting a severe strain on Nicaragua's resources. Most of the equipment was made in the Good 'Ol USA, and the trade embargo imposed on Nicaragua by Reagan made it very difficult to get spare parts.

#29 Mothers and children, Purisima The Woody Woodpecker toy the children are holding was a common sight. A wheel is pushed along the street surface, and Woody, or some other animal, bobs up and down.

#30 Purisima, child 2 Just one of many tables where children were given toys and candy.

#31 The Spirit of the Revolution The Spirit of the Revolution.

As I was walking along enjoying the sights and sounds, and especially the children, I was roughly bumped off the walkway from behind. I turned around, and to my surprise I was facing the three Sandinista police officers I had passed just a moment earlier. As I passed them, I had noticed, and thought that it was pretty cool, that two of them were pushing along a bobbing animal toy. A bit of playfulness in the midst of terror and heartache, I thought.

The officers spoke English, and they wanted a convincing explanation why I was carrying two cameras, and some less-fancy-than-it-looked camera gear. They were pretty stern. I was somewhat panic-stricken, because our group was scheduled to attend a dinner with a government representative, and I was actually on my way there. Moreover, I didn't have my passport—it was in the custody of our group's Sandinista guide, Noel Correa. I imagined myself sitting in a Sandinista jail for the night, while my compañeros frantically tried to locate me.

I explained that I was with a peace and justice group, dropped Noel Correa's name, told them I was a passionate supporter of the revolution and a solid friend of Nicaragua. I told them that we would go back to America and tell our friends that Nicaragua was not a threat to anyone. I also said that I would like to take their picture. Finally, I succeeded in convincing them that I was not a threat, and they said I could go on my way. But as I began to leave, the officer in the glasses asked if I still wanted to take their picture.

Well, of course I did. But there was something else in the picture that I didn't notice until months later, while going through my slides for a second or third presentation. What at first glance appear to be feathers sticking up behind the female officer's head is really a "V" sign made by a woman who was passing by just as I prepared to take the picture. On closer examination, her shoe and knee are visible behind the officer.

Thus it happened that the sense of humor that unknown woman revealed; the playfulness and that decency I mentioned above, shown by the officers, together inspired the title of this picture. Perhaps that mystery woman is still there in Nicaragua, and if she has access to the Internet, she might find herself here someday.

Return to Introduction and Nicaragua Table of Contents.

Top    Contact me     Home page     Table of Contents

Page last updated February 24, 2005