Sunday, November 12, 2006

Career opportunities

For the most part, Daniel Ortega’s win in the Nicaraguan presidential election is reported as a head-scratcher, if not a defeat for God, George W. Bush, mom, apple pie, and all things good and proper. It’s been a long time since I followed Nicaraguan politics, so all I know is what I’ve read in the newspapers these past few weeks preceding the election, which if history is any indication, which it usually is, means nothing, or worse than nothing, misinformation. But you never know, unless you are directly involved.

The unfortunate truth is that Nicaragua is a poor country with no significant natural resources and there will be widespread poverty no matter who governs it. The best they can hope for is basic political and economic freedom, health care, and education, which may not sound like much but are actually quite precious. The worst they can fear is the return of, if not further descent into, a brutal police state where those on top take what there is, leaving next to nothing for the great majority while jailing, torturing or killing anyone who complains about it. This worst case scenariois just about all they’ve known historically.

I spent a month in Nicaragua in early 1983. Back then, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan was creating and arming a terrorist organization that came to be known as the Contras. Our proxies were just beginning to carry out terrorist attacks while I was there. Although everyone knew the U.S. was behind these attacks, Ronald Reagan and his spokespeople regularly looked the camera in the eye and lied about it. I was there and I saw the evidence. There was no doubt.

To be at a place in history where you know the facts on the ground and can see a very convincing politician look you in the eye and lie about it is something everyone could benefit from. It’s an eye opening experience and it's available to everyone. All you have to do is study any controversial issue about which the government is taking controversial actions, especially abroad, but few of us take advantage of the opportunity. It’s one thing to generically “know” that the government lies all the time. It’s something else when you witness it first hand. It’s something else again when people’s lives are being ruined, if not extinguished because of these lies. And it’s really enlightening when you meet those people and see that they are not evil monsters, just every day people like you and me.

I did not meet Daniel Ortega, but I met his wife, the poet Rosario Murillo and quite a few other Sandinistas. I was very impressed with Rosario Murillo. She was a beautiful woman and very passionate about the arts. She was the type of woman you’d expect to be teaching a graduate writing seminar, not as the wife of some third world dictator. And although the reading meant nothing to me at the time, I got to attend one by the master short story writer Julio Cortázar and a reception afterwards where I met Thomas Borge and other higher level Sandanistas. Of course by “met,” I mean shake hands and briefly exchange pleasantries. We didn’t sit down and chat over beers or anything like that. I don’t know what kind of person Daniel Ortega and the other Sandanistas came to be, but the overwhelming majority of things I saw, heard, and studied at the time led me to believe that they were sincere at the time.

I also met some people who I’m sure would later go on to be Contras, if they weren’t already, and heard stories of violence and injustices committed by the Sandinistas. Landowners had their properties confiscated and often their former “employees,” now Sandinistas, took revenge for past wrongs. The Sandinista police and military apparently looked the other way while many of these type crimes were being committed. And they were particularly hated on the Caribbean coast where the English speaking people and the Indians had always been ignored by the government and liked it that way. They got vastly improved medical care, education, and electricity, but preferred the freedom they had known before. I find it easy to believe that Nicaragua was never a utopia of justice under the Sandinistas. I do believe, however, that it was a big improvement over the previous dictator and that their intentions were good. That was 1983.

But it appears that things went down hill. The U.S. followed the classic insurgent strategy of making the government to become ever more repressive. The Contras terrorized civilians and attacked isolated military targets forcing the government to devote more and more of its time and resources to security, and ultimately repression. That, along with economic pressures led to a decrease in standard of living as well as freedom for the Nicaraguan people and resulted in more opposition to Sandinista rule.

And I think that beyond the obvious, that kind of thing changes the people in charge. The Sandinista idealists were forced to make hard choices, to oppress and to kill, in order to hang on to power. As is not unusual in human affairs, they began to become the thing that they hated. This was our plan and it worked.

How it would have gone if the U.S. had let them try their experiment in Democracy is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

But it is important to note that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was a Democracy. The newspapers portray it as a dictatorship at the top of the stories, but if you read deep down they grudgingly admit that the Sandinistas were elected in fair elections and then peacefully turned over power when they lost. Again, whether these elections would have taken place without U.S. pressure is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

So it is not necessarily the end of Democracy now that Daniel Ortega and some remnant of the Sandinistas are back in power. Everything I read suggests that they have become totally corrupted by all of these years in politics. I suspect that is true, but it’s also true that you can’t believe what you read, particularly when you are in the U.S. (or anywhere else) reading about people the government perceives as their enemies.

I hope they can still be the people they wanted to be. I wish them well.