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Scenes from Nicaragua

1.

On May 20, 1986, at 7 p.m., at least 800 contras attacked two cooperatives in Miraflores, 18 miles north-east of the city of Esteli. Eight people were killed and sixteen wounded and property was destroyed.

—A report from Witnesses For Peace, issued June 10

Miraflores, Nicaragua—“Miraflores” can be loosely translated as “see the flowers.” The Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform speaks of it as the seat of sixteen cooperative communities; but as with so much else of the revolution, the declaration has preceded the fulfillment it proclaims.

The frames and the fresh nicalit fiberboard of two of the sixteen Miraflores communities stand very close to where the Teodoso Pravia cooperative used to be. They are unfinished and uninhabited, because they are still waiting for their share of the ministry’s pinched supply of bricks. The Sandino and Pravia cooperatives came under assault by anti-Sandinista guerrillas three weeks before this visitor arrived. Sandino’s brick is half-ruined and Pravia’s wood has vaporized in a fire that had to have been carefully set and supervised down to the last ashes.

A few women gaze from the doorways of Sandino’s one-room houses with the not unfamiliar Nicaraguan face that seems to endure all things and wait in expectation of none. There are children about; but the bedding in these interiors runs too much to the sleeping bags of soldiers to suggest family quarters. When dark approaches the women and children mostly depart down the hill to sleep in one of the other settlements. Sandino lives around the clock only as a military outpost and an unassailable one, especially because the contras have left nothing they would think worth the risk of assailing.

There is the promise that the families will resettle in Sandino in due course. But it would be understandable if they felt the need for encouragement by tangible measures of security; and the interval of suspension seems so far to be passing without intrusion by the bustle and noise that signify works of reconstruction.

A troop of soldiers occupies the dirt in front of the porch of Sandino’s largest structure, perhaps a school or a store or an assembly hall for peaceful times lodged indefinitely in its future. This formation is identified as a signal company assigned to restore communications; but, as it is, these corpsmen merely stand in drowsy attention to the quiet tones of their commander. The impression is of some lesson taught in the open air and the suspicion is that they have been unable to bring along the equipment that would have made their presence more purposeful. It is a suspicion devoid of mockery; surplus wire is hard to find in Nicaraguan emergencies.

Ramon Gomez, who is wearing a white shirt, appears to be in charge and is asked to describe the battle of May 20 last. He obliges with evocations of eight hundred contras and the fire fight that lasted on and on for five hours until a Nicaraguan military detachment arrived to drive them away. The visitor casts about a searching eye dimly illuminated by his own memories of combats altogether pleasanter, looks for cartridge shells and finds almost none, tries to locate points that might have been skirmisher’s lines and sees only some furrows suggesting entrenchments but too shallow to have been in any way serviceable.

Just three judgments seemed fairly safe: (1) if a pitched battle had been fought in this vicinity, it could not have been fought on the ground within immediate view; (2) and yet the deaths of six civilians—three of them children—are a fact abiding beyond reach of doubt or question; (3) Ramon Gomez, the narrator, is not talking about anything he saw for himself. If he had been in Sandino that evening, he would be dead, because his white shirt, however modest, was plainly not a campesino‘s and because unselective as the contras appear to be when they are shooting peasants they seem to be very careful when it comes to marking out for special attention anyone within their range who is recognizably a servant of the revolution.

There could be no disputing Sandino’s six civilian dead; but most of the rest of this story would have to lie on a bed of surmises. The visitor began to frame his assessment of experiences half forgotten and ended at last peopling this scene not with units in battle but with hunters and their quarry in a turkey shoot.

The contras had come down as wolves to the fold; not eight hundred but forty would have sufficed for their will. Nothing apparent could be called a fortification; this had to have been a place that was in its essence undefended. Those who had lived here had not been frightened enough in advance to be prepared to resist, being terrified into panic by the horror when it burst. The visitor settled with that guess with respect, having himself panicked on fields where he had been barely in danger.

There are few ceremonies more familiar among wars’ rites of passage than panic; and it is particularly to be hoped that this government will talk less about heroes and take more account of ordinary people, and that, whatever the outcome of its other dreams, it will try with genuine self-discipline to make whoever comes back to the Sandino cooperative ready for the next time around.

The visitor is pointed to the house where the three Talevara children were killed by a grenade. Or was it a mortar? The conflicting versions are not worth sorting out; the murder would be the murder in either case. A side of the interior wall has been whitewashed; but there are black splotches on the ceiling that the guides identify as blood and that may very well be, although the visitor comes from a country too profligate about shedding blood and too tidy about wiping it up for any citizen to know what its stains look like after three weeks.

The thought of the two dead boys and the dead girl in not a light one; but it is not more than a thought. Nicaragua is a country of martyrs who have given no offense; and these children are already slipping into abstraction for anyone who never saw them alive or dead.

Nothing about Nicaragua can be known in your bones except what you see with your eyes. And then the visitor goes off to what was once the Teodoso Pravia cooperative and discovers that just what you see can be quite enough. The only observable ruins are a sack of potatoes, lightly baked, and the twisted roofs preserved from entire cremation by the asbestos mixed in their fiberboard. Otherwise there are only a few ashes and earth not merely scorched but charred; the wood frames that once defined floors have been evaporated in a fire that has not left so much as a scent.

A job so complete had needed time, patience, and a certainty of freedom from interruption. All that survived on the scene was the mark of cold and disciplined malice. And just a few yards away, the frames of two of the projected cooperatives stood intact and untouched; and the sight of them fixed the conviction that they owed their immunity to their unfinished and empty state.

Teodoso Pravia had been obliterated because it was complete and occupied and, after its fashion, an accomplishment in a country that has only too few. The tidal fact about the contras came down in all its thunder. What they truly hate is not the dreams that are still fantasies but any small bit of a dream that demonstrates some sign of realization. They had waited until these buildings were finished and a living presence and then they had burned them down, because they hate the slightest feeling of having accomplished something in the bosoms of peasants so seldom permitted that somber joy.

Why are we to suppose these families came to this patch from which they have been cast forth without being permitted to leave so much as a trace? Is it too much to imagine that they came for a life moderately improved? Is it treasonable for an American to wonder what difference it would have made in the balance of power between great nations if these struggling souls were still settled in a shelter whose topmost amenity is keeping out the rain and not choking them with the smoke of the cook fire, if they were still painfully raising potatoes for sale at twenty-five cents a bushel, and if the years went on while the best that could be said for them was that the child was a little better off than his parents had been at his age?

Who, when all is said and done, goes to glory when you burn a peasant’s potato crop? The remains of Teodoso Pravia are the brand of a beaten army. Soldiers begin pretty much as a rabble; they are molded together and they fight and, when they are defeated, they become, in all but the best of cases, a rabble once more. The contras cannot have been reduced to futile malignities like this one unless they were already a rabble incapable of employments less dingy than the rape of an innocent hope. Until now the visitor had not been much impressed with the troops he had seen around him anymore than they would have been if they had seen him younger in his fatigues and with his gas mask emptied to make room for tobacco. Still they looked more than fit to engage an enemy sunk into the condition where the most it could do is the thing it had done here.

2.

The National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was created in June 1980 as an autonomous government agency charged to promote respect for human rights in Nicaragua.

The Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Nicaragua is a non-governmental organization created to promote human rights…relations between [it] and the government are tense.

—an Americas Watch Report on Nicaragua, April 1983

Managua—To diagram the institutions of Nicaragua is to chart a kind of symbiosis of the polarized. Every action in its public life has an unequal and opposite reaction. There is the Catholic Church of tradition and the Church of the People. There is the government labor federation and there is an exiguous bloc of independent unions, and they have nothing in common except a shared deprivation of the right to strike.

In every aspect of institutional life in Nicaragua, the voice of the revolution resounds and back comes the reply, usually feebler, in the name of one or another beleaguered constituency. There seem to be two of everything, and, naturally, there are two human rights commissions.

Lino Hernandez is national coordinator of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, which is, as Americas Watch puts it, “an organization highly critical of the Sandinista government.” On June 16, nine women of the sort sometimes referred to as “of the people” were sitting in the antechamber below his office. Theirs were the faces that wait in the reception rooms of clinics for the poor. Lino Hernandez greets his visitor with a handshake and the delivery of the month-by-month reports of his commission since January last. Until last April they were, like the stock in Managua’s dollar store, products reserved not for the native but for the traveler from another country, because, for a while previously, the government had refused to allow their distribution to its public so long as Hernandez refused to submit them to the censor.

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