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.
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.
The opening pleasantries are essayed and Lino Hernandez does not laugh. Until now, every Nicaraguan observed has managed to muster a smile, however weak the joke, but here at last is one too tired and too saddened to laugh even for the sake of the courtesies he is otherwise scrupulous to observe.
The visitor has already been warned by a person highly trustworthy that Lino Hernandez has been at his vigil so long that his views can sometimes be “a bit hysterical” and that it is wise to be cautious about accepting them whole. In any case, the truth about Nicaragua is approachable, if at all, not through documents but by reliance on random chance. Would it be possible for Hernandez and the visitor to go down to the waiting room, unselectively pick one of its occupants, and ask her to come and tell us what had brought her there?
She sat down in a chair in the middle of Hernandez’ office in a dress the color of a paper bag with two aching holes that wear and tear had designed in her skirt. The visitor would fix his gaze and she would turn her head to profile almost as though she were too embarrassed to display her misery in its full frontal force. Once in a while, she would pause in her narrative and slowly, mutely, wipe her eyes and nose on her sleeve.
She said as best she could through these intervals that four evenings earlier her husband had disappeared and her neighbors had told her that four members of the security police had come to the house with their rifles and in their red jeep and taken him away. He and she and their two children lived in Granada, thirty miles to the southeast, and he was an ice-cream vendor. She did not know what he could have done to offend; his relations with the local Committee of Sandinista Defense had been amiable; he had stood guard when told to, and he had never before been in jail. She had inquired of the police and they told her that they would declare her husband missing. “Every day he would come back with the money to find food,” she said, “and that night he was unable to do it.”
A neighbor, whose son had once been missing in circumstances similarly opaque, had told her about the Commission on Human Rights, and she had come to Managua by bus and taken a taxi because she would not otherwise know how to find it. By then the eye had settled on the hand that was almost fiercely grasping the whole of her fortune, a wad of brown paper currency thick enough to choke a camel and, since it was in cordobas—tens, twenties, and with luck an odd hundred or so—perhaps worth enough to buy five tortillas.
She left at last to recite her sorrows for formal transmission to Lenin Cerna, commander of the General Office of State Security, who has not yet quite flatly told Hernandez that complaints in writing will pass entirely unconsidered. She identified herself in her declaration as Mercedes Moreira Amador, twenty-two. It seemed impossible that she could be so young and so swiftly linked to the chain of helpless subjugation that has run immutably through generations of the Nicaraguan poor. Her grandmother might have sat, equally ashamed of tears, in the same state of baffled bereavement and talked about her affliction by some whim of one of the Somozas.
No more than the tyrants it came to sweep for ever into history does this revolution think it a debt of mere decency to tell a woman whose husband has been taken by the security police where he is or why he is there. But if this habit of indifference to the victim has not altered, its application to the suspect appears rather less cruel. If Mercedes Amador’s husband’s case is average, the chances are that in two weeks or so, his experience with this variety of the revolution’s attentions to the poor will end with his release, physically unharmed and with his detention officially unexplained. Of course, Hernandez speculated, he may owe his misfortune not to his possible heresies but to his trade. Nicaraguan security police have traditionally set a high value on the assistance of ice-cream vendors. They are uniquely privy to the gossip of the squares and they are all but unnoticeable seated by the front doors of suspect political deviants.
But it is unlikely that Mercedes Amador’s husband has been physically mistreated; even those who oppose it generally concede that the government does not usually practice torture unless we mean to define as such the state to which Mercedes Amador had been brought down.
The visitor’s pot luck turned up just one Nicaraguan who had remained in detention long enough to be familiar with the means employed. Roger Guevara is a lawyer who has defended priests in trouble before the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals. He was arrested in January 1985, and conveyed to El Chipote, the Somoza family’s old prison on a hill above Managua. He sat in a dark closet for four hours and then was brought to formal interrogation at eight in the evening. He remained there for seven hours of questioning by the brother of Commander of the Revolution Bayardo Arce and another policeman.
“They told me that my wife, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, was outside the prison frantic and weeping. They knew who my friends were and where I went. I was most impressed by how much they knew about me. And, after they had given me their own analysis of my own personal and political life, they told me I could not leave until I told them my secret truth.”
He could provide no secret truth, and thereafter they left him severely alone in the solitary darkness of days in a small cell with a straw cot, water for one hour, and a toilet that was a hole in the floor. His only contact with the human species was the hand that thrust in the rice and eggs that was his unchanging meal.
What Roger Guevara remembers most acutely of all was his terrible tormenting need to “talk to someone, almost anyone.” But he did not give way and, on the tenth day of his imprisonment, “they took me out and shaved me and put me on the roof to give me some color and put some lotion on my face and left me at home saying that they hoped the experience would do me some good.
“One of them asked, ‘What do you think of the process?’ I answered, ‘What process?’ Arce’s brother then said that I had been staying first class.”
And perhaps Guevara had. It would take an ice-cream vendor of special distinction to be eligible for interrogation by a comandante’s brother. Every morning, when he comes to work, Lino Hernandez says he finds at least six women like Mercedes Amador waiting for him. He may have been too long at this sort of thing to sustain the detachment requisite for precise and irrefutable proffers of evidence, and he may perhaps have grown “a bit hysterical.” If he has, it is a disability earned on a field of honor.
Esteli, Nicaragua—Back in Managua, Carlos Humbes’s visitor scoured for whatever light might help him divine what subsisting in Nicaragua must be like for the general secretary of CTN, the wind-tossed umbrella of the Catholic trade unions. At length the visitor could find no better question than: “From where you sit are things better or worse or just the same as they were before the revolution?”
“Better” would be inconceivable from this quarter. “Worse” would be only the expected from a labor leader unevenly competing with rivals whose nurse and keeper is the Sandinista government. No possible answer could surprise except “the same.”
“Lo mismo,” Carlos Humbes replied.
Lo mismo. “The same.” The same cruel futility of things.
The visitor is observing the shoe factory the revolution has brought to Esteli. Its air is pervaded with the tune of hammer plinking upon nail, a sound that fell silent long ago wherever there exist methods of production that can reasonably be called processes of manufacture.
Here hunch twenty figures from centuries gone, cobblers with no machines but their fingers. Each would have worked alone in his cottage before the Industrial Revolution; the only perceptible difference is that now he has been collected in a shed with nineteen other handicraftsmen, each cutting, shaping, and fitting his own materials.
The establishment’s best artisan is introduced. He is stitching the side trim on a boot. A young boy sits beside him threading a needle. It is an image from seventeenth-century genre painting, the apprentice learning his trade by observing his master, and the inference is inescapable that, now as then, the apprentice’s mother is paying a small fee for the lesson.
The master displays his latest completed work with eminently justifiable pride. It will retail for roughly fifteen dollars and half of that will be his pay for ten ten-hour days of loving care. We meet one of Nicaragua’s labor aristocrats, and he fairly glows with the satisfaction of bringing home four dollars a day.
Are we to suppose in such scenes that we have penetrated a core sector of the fearful machine that pours forth the jackboots for what our own president seems seriously to conceive as the imminent trampling of Latin America?
At the cigar factory, a crew of workers, mostly women, puts the tobacco leaves through their preparatory stage by breaking off their stems and stacking them on tables. Things are done here just as they must have been when Samuel Gompers wrapped cigars in Tampa in 1865 before breaking his chains to bemuse the toilers and himself as the first president of the American Federation of Labor.
The revolution’s “Outstanding Child Worker,” a transient television celebrity, is a member of this work force. She is twelve years old, an intact artifact from the beginnings of capitalism. Nicaragua’s methods of production are still so primitive that its ministry of labor can find no way to increase output except to encourage all hands to work harder with pay incentives.
She who sorts and stacks seventy pounds of tobacco has achieved the day’s norm where her incentive pay begins. At the end of any month when she has averaged 30 percent above the norm, she will have earned 28,000 cordobas, while an equally motivated sister will take home 38,000 cordobas, thanks to the higher level of skill required to wrap the cigars and bundle them. For the great majority of Nicaraguans who have no access to the black market, a thousand cordobas is worth but a shade more than one American dollar.
The visitor travels on to the garment factory named after Luisa Ajuda Espinoza, a revolutionary martyr, and there he beholds a sight he has all but lost hope of seeing on a Nicaraguan industrial premise—a working spread of mechanized devices.
They are sewing machines, gifts of the unions affiliated with the Belgian Socialist party. Nicaragua’s sympathizers blame most of her difficulties on the Reagan administration’s economic boycott, but, in point of fact, she is the beneficiary of an extraordinary volume of foreign aid not merely from the Communist bloc, but from those Western democratic nations whose kindliness is stimulated by their pleasure in the discreet thumbing of noses at the White House. Still it is not often enough aid of the sort that is useful.
For all the pride and even the vainglory of her comandantes, Nicaragua is a beggar nation and cannot be a chooser. She must take what she can get whether from charity or from barter. Most of the paltry stock in the supermarket of Esteli is of foreign import and so all else but appropriate that customers from a town that could hardly have many more than one hundred flush toilets can find a whole shelf stuffed high with toilet plungers delivered by Bulgaria in exchange possibly for Nicaraguan cigars.
When the Belgians donated these sewing machines, they conferred a treasure upon the Luisa Ajuada Espinoza Cooperative; and its rewards manifest themselves in the schedule on the wall that establishes a forty-dollar-a-month rate for a worker who doubles the norm that expects her to attach fifty-six collars a day. There aren’t many trades of moderate skill where the employer can pay even that comparatively decent a wage unless he has functioning machinery.
Still a few young girls activate the needle even here; and the visitor observes, as delicately as he can, that child labor is not an entirely appetizing example of revolutionary social advance. The forelady replies that it is only a temporary recourse in the exigencies of the war that has conscripted the men who would otherwise be working to the national defense.
Hers is the answer that serves better to excuse than to explain. Men do not operate sewing machines; it is women’s work the world around. There are indeed necessities that force a female child into a garment shop, but they are her family’s and not her nation’s necessities, and they are not temporary: Luisa Ajuda Espinoza’s nineteen-dollar monthly minimum wage will for a long time mean for these children the difference between an exigent existence and a just bearable one.
Nicaragua’s revolutionary leaders demonstrate an inarguable quotient of incompetence, but it increases their difficulties all the more because their situation allows them not one inch of the wide margin for mistakes available to developed industrial societies. If they were masters of planning, they would have too little with which to plan; the only material that is not in short supply in Nicaragua is the stuff of dreams.
The citizens of Cordoga have been assembled to celebrate the anniversary of one of the earliest Sandinista victories there. Cordoga is perhaps four hundred yards and not less than a hundred years from that lonely symbol of capitalist development, the Pan American Highway. Nothing seems new there except the Wall of Revolutionary Martyrs and the cellophane banners of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. A troupe from the Nicaraguan National Ballet offers a program of dances from progressive portions of the earth, including a snatch of The Red Detachment of Women, the ballet to which his People’s Chinese hosts subjected President Richard Nixon, and it appears to baffle this audience as much as it did him. The occasion is nonetheless unexpectedly pleasant, and not least because of the brevity, the quiet tones, and the notes even of apology for past inadequacies in the keynote address of José Francisco Mendietta, secretary of the Sandinista party for the zone of Esteli.
It is fifty years since the murder of Augusto Sandino, and yet if he had ridden into Cordoga this day, he would have found not one change to surprise him except the martyr’s wall and the pictures of himself plastered on so many other walls. Forty-three of those years belonged to the Somozas and only seven belong to the revolution, and none of them has brought a detectable difference in the life of Cordoga.
The real Nicaragua has at last given entire place to the imaginary one. First Congress yields our tithes to President Reagan’s largely imaginary contra force; and then the comandantes strike back by repressing their largely imaginary opposition.
The daily La Prensa has been closed indefinitely by government decree and has been variously described in the mourning notices as a “combative opposition newspaper” and the only one “not controlled by the government.” These descriptions seem no more true to life than most of what is said for and against Nicaragua. However combative in thought La Prensa may have been, it had already been thoroughly disarmed in deed. Language departs rather far from exactitude when we refer to an organ that has lived through seven years of painstaking censorship as the last newspaper beyond the government’s control.
Inept as they may sometimes show themselves as administrators of the state, the comandantes are enormously clever at governing it. Only an emergent need for a demonstrative exhibition of their iron will could explain the surrender of a property as valuable as La Prensa. It served so usefully as a symbol of an opposition forbidden to oppose that its only conspicuous success in the fight for free expression was its defiance of government pressure to cease listing the Major League scores from the belly of the beast to the north.
La Prensa was also a serviceable resource for the comandantes in their desperate scouring for dollars. Last year the National Endowment for Democracy, a camouflage for the US Treasury, sent $100,000 to La Prensa. The check was paid to the Central Bank of Nicaragua to be converted to cordobas. The cordoba trades, to the extent it can be said to trade at all, at a rate no higher than nine hundred to a dollar. But when the occasion demands, the cordoba can be what the government says it is; and in this case the Central Bank paid La Prensa 250 cordobas for each of its dollars, which is to say that, whenever the United States government gives the opposition $100,000 to fight the comandantes, the comandantes collect three quarters of it. That is an image not without its amusements for the wicked; and the revolution has sound cause to regret the immolation of this commercial asset on the altar of a perceived necessity to suffocate what had already been effectively stifled.
What must be sadder still, for some of the comandantes at least, is the loss of their illusions. Their ideal seems anything but Leninist; its model is the Augusto Sandino who was at once a pitiless warrior and a radical democrat of mystical bent. The contradiction has nowhere shown itself more acutely than in the revolution’s reverence for the forms of pluralism and distaste for the heresies that are its inevitable consequence.
There is, for example, a National Assembly where a minority of liberals and conservatives air their complaints. There would be a sense of genuine debate if the majority benches occupied by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation were not too torpid to give reply. And yet the Assembly is a soundproof chamber from which no word of dispute is permitted to emanate to the air outside. A visitor to Nicaragua can spend ten days winnowing its press for a reference to the proceedings of the National Assembly and not find mention of a parliamentarian of any persuasion—until his search is dubiously rewarded with the information that Felix Pedro Espinoza, a Conservative deputy, has been charged with burning down his hacienda to prevent its seizure by the government.
Eduardo Molina, the Conservative party leader, is a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Human Rights. That is not a legislative dignity carrying any license to demand enlightenment from the director of state security on the whereabouts of the 350 of his party’s activists who Molina claims are political detainees. Still, Nicaragua’s governors cherish such forms as parliamentary committees even while denying them any genuine substance; and the endurance of this paradox until now may perhaps be explained more by their need to deceive themselves than by any calculation to beguile the rest of the world. They are beyond all else revolutionary nationalists; the Nicaragua they have imagined is the whole of the world to them. Their revolution was to be different from all the rest, benign where the others were terrible. But now they are compelled to command because they cannot manage. Their economy is in disorder and their visions are passing into the evanescence of indefinite distances.
It would be understandable if their hearts were carried back to the hills where life was harsher but altogether simpler for them, and if they now need the conviction of unceasing war that the Reagan administration has done so grievously much to encourage. War’s exhortations and its states of continual siege have become a necessity, not simply because the war happens to be a tangible fact but because it takes the mind off the insolubility of everything else.
The visitor returns wondering indeed whether, in some part of themselves, the comandantes almost long to have the Americans land. An invading force could presumably occupy Managua; and the revolution, in the spirit of the peddler who sold the asp to Cleopatra, could very well wish them joy of that worm. As for the comandantes, they would go back to the hills, rouse the peasants against the foreigners, and stand as unconquerable as Sandino was.
In time, as they always do, the Americans will grow weary and withdraw; and back the Sandinistas would come to begin all over again with a copybook cleansed of every blot. It is an uneasy prospect; but in the present circumstances, it is not without its temptations.
Dr. Emilio Alvarez Montalban may or may not be the last Nicaraguan still addressed by acquaintances and identified by admirers as Don Emilio. That ancient Spanish term of respect is dying with the revolution or departing with its exiles, and Don Emilio is an artifact. When he was active in the Nicaraguan Conservative Democratic party’s leadership, he spent a year in a Somoza family jail. The revolution is unlikely to mark him for a similarly unpleasant distinction, if only because no comandante is alienated enough from tradition to trust his eyes to any ophthalmologist other than Don Emilio.
He is still the Conservative party’s Nestor, even though his last direct labor on its behalf was to compose and publish an unexpectedly respectful critique of the philosophy of Karl Marx four years ago. Since then he has limited himself to his studies of the history of the eye and to his conversations. It is at once a sorrow and a solace that the voice of Emilio Alvarez Montalban promises to resonate longer in the visitor’s head than any other he brought home from Nicaragua.
Don Emilio’s conversation goes down only too familiar channels—the decline in living standards, the increase in infant mortality, the ineptitude whose consequence is the death of 200,000 baby chickens because the planning authorities forgot to provide their feed and the unassailable self-satisfaction that inspires the minister of agriculture’s assurance that there are still a million left alive. It is an exhausting catalog of the failures that have left the litany of triumph as loud as ever
But then his voice ceases its quiet complaint about present troubles and turns to the reflective.
“The Americans came to us, and they organized money and the National Bank and the National Guard. They were the preachers of the modern. And yet they never developed a taste for our culture. And they are not alone in that confusion. One of my patients is a Bulgarian engineer brought here for an aid project. He told me that communism is impossible with people like ours.
” ‘In Bulgaria,’ he said, ‘the whistle blows and we rush in and it’s work, work, work all day, and I go home exhausted. But these people come in and then just wander off for coffee and talk, and I have to round them up.’ ”
Are we to take it then that Nicaraguans are unfit for the Marxist-Leninist ideal because they decline to be worked to death?
“The Bulgarian had, of course, overlooked the poor Nicaraguan’s want of nutrition, the fact that he is always tired,” Alvarez Montalban went on. “But the Americans make the same mistake. We are unable to understand one another. We say of Anglo-Saxons, ‘They are easy to fool and they are materialists.’ And they say of us, ‘They are liars and lazies and they don’t like to work.’
“You must understand that our lives are a mixture of the reality and the dream, because the reality is otherwise too hard to bear. The Sandinistas dream of waking to find that they have made us into Los Angeles.”
“Look at the photographs of our comandantes,” he said suddenly. “They are indios. Before them we were ruled by Spanish faces; this is our first mestizo government.”
His visitor began to sense disdain, and as is his weakness, he had sensed too soon. For Don Emilio went on to talk, with no sign of dissatisfaction, about some of the changes since 1979.
“Women have a new role. The caballero’s old double standard is gone. And the common people believe at last that they are important. There are differences in their treatment. Now they call you compañero. The language is more informal. It is a sadness of our history that it has trained the bulk of us to think that equality means more than freedom.
“But,” he ended, “the Sandinistas will have a long agony, because they will never create their world. One of our problems is that we are not radicals. The Catholics have been trying to convert us for four hundred years. Our culture swallows all missionaries.”
Nonetheless, the revolution presses its endeavors toward what Carlos Tunnermann Bernheim, its minister of education, has called the “formation of the New Man,” and third-grade pupils steel their characters and refine their penmanship by copying sentences like: “Culture is the artistic rifle of the Revolution” and “The children of Sandino never surrender…we will protect the workers and the peasants.” And yet there are a dozen pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and none of Marx or Lenin in the schoolroom where they transcribe their vows and exercise their devotions.
In Esteli one Sunday morning, the sound of a drum is heard and a column of children approaches. Here in full force can only be the armed New Man grown from dragon’s teeth planted by the revolution. And then there arises from this formation a martial chant at once and unmistakably translatable as “Gimme an E, gimme an M, gimme an A….” The uniforms are pin-striped: what confronts the visitor’s shuddering eye is the terrible presence of the Little League baseball team of the barrio of Emaor.
Children very much like these were killed in a contra raid not twenty miles from Esteli three weeks before, and now, in its ineffable poltroonery, the Congress of the United States has tripled the subsidy that bought this milestone on the march to Nicaragua’s redemption and will now speed the business along three times as fast and three times as far. Let the glad cry ring forth from bastion to bastion in the United States: “Yesterday three kids in a peasant’s compound in the hills; tomorrow the Little League team from Emaor.”
August 14, 1986