Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua
Inside Central America: Its People, Politics, and History
Stephen Kinzer and Clifford Krauss both covered Central America as news correspondents for thirteen years. This is a long time for an American correspondent to stay in one region, and it is especially long in Central America, where throughout the 1980s the pace of news and bloodletting was relentlessly exhausting. Also, Central America does not at first seem to offer the historical depth or cultural diversity to hold a journalist’s fascination for a decade or better. After the millions of words about the region that filled American newspapers during the Reagan years, I believe many journalists, and not a few readers, were left feeling that they knew more than they needed to know about a neck of small, shallow countries which probably never merited the fuss that was made over them.
But Kinzer and Krauss stayed, and so became rare witnesses to a cycle of revolution and restabilization. Inspite of the long years, both have closed out their work in Central America by writing books that are nothing less than tributes to the qualities that drew them to the region.
I am in no position to provide an impartial review of either book. On one hand, I owe the fact that I am a paid journalist to Stephen Kinzer, who helped me to land his job at The Boston Globe in 1983 when he went to a Manhattan daily of some repute. On the other hand, I had the nerve-fraying experience of competing against Kinzer during the three years after 1986, when I was a Washington Post correspondent in Central America. I have not forgotten one or two singularly unpleasant evenings in Managua when I received phone calls from the Post‘s foreign night editor informing me that Kinzer had this or that story on the front page of the Times and asking me if, in the eighteen minutes remaining until our second edition deadline, I could “match” it. Can I resist the temptation to avenge myself by using a review of his book to expatiate on my own views of the events we covered?
As for Krauss, I have been an admirer of his since a day in the early 1980s when he missed by a millimeter having his head blown off while he and I and a third reporter were chewing dust on a Salvadoran highway, caught in the midst of a shootout between the army and the guerrillas. The bullet in question nicked a rock and lost its lethal velocity just before settling into Krauss’s scalp. As we scuttled for cover he quipped casually: “I don’t even shave that close.” In addition, not the least of my attachments to Central America comes through my husband, Sam Dillon of the Miami Herald, whose book Comandos, an Investigative History of the Nicaraguan Contras, will be published in July.
It appears that Kinzer’s method for his book was to lay his many newspaper clips out before him and to write a narrative of the events in Nicaragua to put the stories together. He hasn’t done much new research or reporting, but he was one of the few reporters covering Nicaragua who was in a position to take this approach. As early as 1983 his editors in New York made a prescient decision, to open a bureau in Managua and base a reporter there who would essentially cover only the Nicaraguan story. At a time when most other reporters were scampering from country to country in Central America as one crisis after another sprang up unpredictably, Kinzer was able to organize his reporting more methodically.
He sought to set his own pace, proceeding as if he were the only reporter in the country. He was not always first, but he was thorough. He had an opportunity to provide more comprehensive coverage than any other single reporter during his five years in Managua, and often he succeeded in doing so. He reported regularly, for example, on the anti-Sandinista rebellion by the Miskito and other Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, while other beat reporters could not afford the time and patient planning necessary to get out there. His chapter in this book about the Miskito war is one of the most useful because he gives eyewitness accounts of key episodes from each period of the insurrection.
Also, even as many other journalists were tending to favor the quick study and the fast draw, Kinzer aspired to being a resident correspondent of the old school, a connoisseur of the milieu of his assignment. The Sandinistas’ conspiratorial separateness, and their antipathy for so influential an American institution as The New York Times, compounded by the bitterness of the contra war, prevented Kinzer from transforming his Managua house into a regular gathering place for people representing the entire spectrum of political views, as he no doubt would have liked. “Being an outsider in Nicaragua meant that one was forever excluded from certain circles of knowledge,” he admits. Instead, rejecting the common impression that what little there was of a distinctive culture in Nicaragua had died in destitution sometime during the Somoza dictatorship, Kinzer decided to become a student of things Nicaraguan.
“I wanted to learn and write about Nicaraguans as a people, to immerse myself in their country….” Kinzer writes so simply that he would sound disingenuous if this wasn’t exactly what he did. His book ends with a sixteen page bibliography about Nicaraguan history and culture. He includes an homage to Rubén Darío, the great Nicaraguan poet, and an account of a visit to the remote ruins of the fort at El Castillo, where the last big news event had been a battle in 1762. He models his pursuit of Nicaragua on the work of E.G.Squier, an American diplomat whose Central American travelogue was published in 1860.
For the purposes of this book, in fact, Nicaragua was more of a passion for Kinzer than a source of news. His retelling of the Sandinista saga is competent but not particularly fresh. In spite of the intimacy of their small country, the Sandinistas managed to keep a lot of their secrets. The inside account of their years in power has yet to be written. What Kinzer offers is a loose string of telling anecdotes, as when in an interview he confronts the much-feared Sandinista interior minister, Tomás Borge, and asks him to account for the gratuitous beating by Borge’s deputy, Lenín Cerna, of the president of a Catholic parents’ association.
“I’ll just tell you one thing,” Borge snorts at Kinzer. “That man is lucky he was interrogated by Lenín Cerna and not by me.”
Kinzer could have gone into more detail about the worst days of the Sandinistas’ repression, in 1986, when they jailed more than six thousand peasants suspected of collaborating with the contras and murdered a still unknown number of them. But his report on the Sandinista police assault on an opposition demonstration in 1988 at Nandaime, where Kinzer himself was clubbed unconscious by a policeman, is revealing enough about the Sandinistas’ authoritarian streak. Besides, Kinzer is anxious to stress that “the Sandinistas never ruled with anything near the level of savagery that was accepted as routine in other parts of Central America.”
His assessments of the main leaders are generally fair. He points out that that most sacred of cows, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, though revered by many Nicaraguans, damaged his credibility as a peacemaker by refusing to speak out against grim abuses committed by the contras. Of former president Daniel Ortega he observes with acuity, “Almost alone among Sandinista leaders, he seemed to grow before our eyes.”
In one chapter Kinzer portrays the “sadness and decay” that Sandinista rule and the contra war brought upon Managua. He recalls the failing telephones, the elusive food supply, the incompetent bureaucrats. Whereas it took seventy years to demonstrate that socialism was unworkable as an economic system in the Soviet Union, the Sandinistas proved it in Nicaragua in less than a decade. As leaders they had talent for the art of ideology, formulating a distinctive revolutionary creed which had the worthy goal of giving Nicaraguans a sense of nationhood. But many Nicaraguans voted against the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections precisely because of the lowering experiences of daily life under their government that Kinzer describes.
Some readers will be as interested in what this book reveals about Kinzer as in what it says about Nicaragua. Not the least of his accomplishments is to have survived five years in the political cyclone of Managua without being cut off from information, or thrown out, by any side. He kept his reporting cool and opaque, like the dark glasses he always wore in the tropical sun; his expression was concealed. A number of observers passing through Managua toward the end of Kinzer’s tour told me they knew for a fact that he was secretly rooting for the contras.
But here we have an opinionated text which shows that Kinzer was moved by the same euphoria as most Nicaraguans when the Sandinistas ousted the last Somoza in 1979, and that he continued throughout his time in Nicaragua to admire what he regarded as the patriotic aspects of their program. He does not forgive the Sandinistas their self-important, repressive nastiness. But in the end Kinzer credits them with providing “a basis on which a genuine democracy could be built” in their country by driving out the Somozas, and by holding a real election in 1990 and stepping aside peaceably when they lost it. He writes warmly of Ben Linder, the pro-Sandinista American volunteer who was killed by contras in northern Nicaragua in 1987. Much of the American press lost its sympathy for Linder after it became clear he was carrying a rifle when he was ambushed. But because Linder helped the people of a godforsaken Nicaraguan village to build a dam, and delighted them as a clown in his spare time, Kinzer likes him anyway.
At times Kinzer can barely contain his rage at the ignorance he detects behind the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of a civil war among Nicaraguans. He sees the contras as representing a legitimate rebellion by conservative peasants against the Sandinistas’ collectivizing agrarian politics. His quarrel is with their Washington-picked leadership, dominated by former officers from Somoza’s National Guard. “American planners never seemed to grasp the simple fact that Nicaraguans hated the National Guard….” In one chapter he juxta-poses some overblown claims from Oliver North about the menace in Managua with a scene of pain in a Nicaraguan town after a contra attack, a device that might have sounded cheap if it had been used by a less trustworthy writer. He observes that North, with his single-minded zealotry, “would have made a fine Sandinista” had he been Nicaraguan.
The Kinzer who emerges does not feel he was born to the station of New York Times correspondent. “I can handle it,” he tells himself earnestly when he gets the job. “Bureau Chief” he names one chapter, impressed with his title. Finally, this Kinzer is a humane man, not cynical about suffering. He writes a front-page story about two kids maimed by mines; he goes to a hundred funerals. Toward the end he can’t bear any more Nicaraguan death.