Why do I post so much news about Nicaragua?
Nicaragua and its people played a significant role in my life, in Claire’s, and for many of our friends. We made some wonderful, life-long friends there and learned a lot about the wider world. Thousands of internacionalistas went to Nicaragua to volunteer or to work with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) after the Sandinista revolution overthrew the brutal, corrupt Somoza regime in 1979.
Delegations from Canadian unions, teachers, farmers, health care workers and left wing organizations visited Nicaragua, organized exchanges between our countries, sister communities, and set up speaking tours around BC and other provinces. The BC Teachers Federation, BC Federation of Labour, Trade Union Group, Oxfam, CUSO, Tools for Peace – these and many more were involved in myriad ways. Many drew inspiration from the Friereian national literacy campaign, the role of women in the revolution, and the influence of liberation theology.
In the 1980s, Canadian musicians such as Bruce Cockburn and Nancy White recorded original songs inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution. Chris Brooks reported often from Nicaragua on CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning program.
Gene Hackman, Ed Harris and Nick Nolte starred in Under Fire, a film about the assassination of inspired by the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Somoza’s National Guard. Salman Rushdie visited Nicaragua and wrote The Jaguar Smile; in 1985 Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the essay Nicaragua at the Crossroads about his time there (New York Times Magazine). US actor Martin Sheen visited; Peter, Paul & Mary toured. The Clash produced their Sandinista album. Nicaragua was a magnet.
Claire’s involvement began in the late 1970s when she helped establish a Nicaragua Solidarity Committee in Vancouver. I was Amnesty International’s Central America Special Action Coordinator for anglophone Canadian groups from 1979-1981 during the worst chapters of the Guatemalan genocide. The civil war in El Salvador was peaking and demonstrations, benefit concerts and fundraising took place continually in Vancouver where we lived.
[That Panzos ceremony was one of the ways I met Claire, because she was the Ad Hoc band’s contact that month for loaning their PA system!]
In Nicaragua, new literature, visual art, theatre and music burst forth. Jackson Brown produced the volcanto album called Si Buscabas (If You Were Looking) by Duo Guardabarranco, a brother-sister duo, Katia and Salvador Cardenal. They went on tour with Salvador Bustos who had just put out his Tragaluz (Skylight) album, performing at gatherings such as the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
In 1985, Claire was invited to design postage stamps at TELCOR Filatelia in Managua and after 9 months, with the help of family, co-workers, many friends and groups, we had raised enough money to cover return airfare and a budget of $100USD/month to cover our food and rent for a year. Guardabarranco played a benefit concert for us at La Quena in East Vancouver with Salvador Bustos. Imagine, three Nicaraguans helping raise money for two Canadians! A profound level of generosity of spirit.
Within a few months of our arrival in Managua in October, 1985, I began teaching a paper making class at the national art school, Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. Our goal was to identify local plant fibres that might make decent papers during a time of scarcity because of the US embargo. Pita cactus fibre (used for hats, mats and tapestries), plantain bark and the long leaves at the base of pineapples were the best. Claire designed two series of stamps: Latin American Writers (in conjunction with the National Libraries Campaign) and Butterflies of the World. She also created various designs for cards, posters, etc.
We spent an intense, but rich and rewarding year there. Nicaraguans were incredibly warm and generous towards us, with acquaintances and co-workers inviting us into their homes and including us in excursions and social gatherings. Our dear friend Liliana introduced me to Nicaraguan literature such as Sergio Ramírez’s Charles Atlas También Muere (Charles Atlas Dies, Too), and taught me how to make nacatamales. We received so much more than we could give through our own work.
For a couple of weeks we picked coffee near Matagalpa as part of a brigade from the Ministry of Culture (we weren’t very good pickers). In our last months, we hitched onto a couple of tours of Canadian unions and other groups which enabled us to see more of the country.
Upon our return, Claire created a series of paintings and collages that Tools For Peace printed in two fundraising calendars, and CoDev printed as cards. Most of her originals sold, but we kept a few, such as Wedding in Santo Domingo.
The 1980s were a time of ferment and hope. As well as the brutal dictator, Somoza, the Shah of Iran had been overthrown and Zimbabwe was free, though repression in those countries lay not far ahead – as yet out of sight. Nicaragua seemed like a beacon at the time. Footage of this 1983 concert in Managua conveys some of the energy and optimism of the era:
“y ahora que ya sos libre Nicaragüita, yo te quiero mucho más” translates as
“and now that you are free, dear Nicaragua, I love you so much more.”
What a beautiful song to a country and its people.
A line in Yo soy de un pueblo sencillo (“I am from a simple town” or “I am from a simple people/country”) says “Juntos somos un volcán” (“together we are a volcano”) which became the slogan of many marches this summer. Claire created two images from this phrase which I digitized this summer in the blue and white colours of the Nicaraguan flag:
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Back in the 1980s, Carlos Mejía Godoy wrote many other revolutionary songs, including “Vivirás Monimbó” (Monimbó, you will live/survive) about the heroic resistance of that indigenous neighbourhood of Masaya as seen in this video montage of music with historical scenes from the insurrection in 1978-79.
In 1990 we returned for the month of April to visit and stay with friends during the transfer of power from the Sandinista government to the UNO opposition coalition that had won the February election. Times were tense.
In 2007, Daniel Ortega regained power after making deals with the conservative Catholic hierarchy and the corrupt right wing businessman, Arnoldo Alemán. He sold out feminists and began a process of undermining the autonomy of various institutions to consolidate his power, including changing the constitution to allow his wife, Rosario Murillo to become his Vice President, and to extend his terms of office. He embarked on a destructive interoceanic canal project in cahoots with a Chinese businessman which campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean people have been resisting and meeting violent repression. (Spanish language report from Amnesty here.)
In April, 2018, after years of increasing corruption and authoritarian measures, the Ortega-Murillo regime responded to protests with lethal force; see also this update, this report from Amnesty International and this Urgent Action concerning a wave of student arrests. Sandinista police, paramilitaries and armed gangs have killed several hundred Nicaraguans, many of them young people, including minors and an infant. Thousands have been injured, hundreds subject to arbitrary detention and there are many reports of torture. Thousands of people have fled the country. Last week the government took steps to completely criminalize all forms of protest.
However, people have lost their fear and continue to resist. They have replaced the old Sandinista slogan, Patria Libre o Morir (“Free Country or Death”) which is the acronym for plomo, the word for “lead” which implies bullets, with Patria Libre y Vivir (“Free Country and Life”). Demonstrations continue to take place throughout Nicaragua and around the world. Many former comandantes, revolutionaries, artists, musicians and writers have left the Sandinista party since 1990. Those who are not in exile have been in the streets with the people.
Carlos Mejía and his brother, Luis Enrique, have written new songs in solidarity with the people resisting state repression in Monimbó and other locations, with students and madres vandálicas (“Vandal Mothers” pokes fun at Daniel Ortega’s wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who has tried to dismiss protestors as a handful of criminals).
Former Sandinista Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, dedicated his recent award of the international Mario Benedetti prize to the Nicaraguan people. Former Sandinista Vice-President, Sergio Ramírez, dedicated his award of the Cervantes prize “to the memory of the Nicaraguans recently killed on the streets while demanding justice and democracy, and to the thousands of young people still fighting with no other weapons than their ideals so that Nicaragua once again becomes a Republic.”
Sadly, some unions, churches, NGOs and individuals who were strong supporters of Nicaragua in the 1980s have not paid attention to the steady degradation of Sandinismo into Orteguismo since 1990. Perhaps they have not noticed the number of brilliant thinkers who have quit or been driven from the Sandinista party. Perhaps they still believe that the Ortega-Murillo regime is somehow “progressive” or they have fallen for the pseudo-journalism and propaganda of sources such as Max Blumenthal and TeleSUR who frame the repression as an excusable response to a “soft coup” financed by the CIA. The regime operates extensive disinformation networks, as well as fake social media profiles to harangue and threaten opposition activists inside and outside the country.
They probably haven’t read Indefensible – Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism by Rohini Hensman or What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis by Dan La Botz. They face ridicule in Spanish-speaking media and social media as the “Jurassic Left”, the “Rancid Left” and – from young left-wing feminsts – as machistas-leninistas (macho-Leninists)(better in Spanish!).
Claire and I have started to “repurpose” some of the art we made after our year in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the friends we love so much more because they yearn to be free and continue to fight for that right. Here’s a video of repurposing a silkscreen portrait of Daniel Ortega; audio in Spanish.
Many friends have responded to our call for solidarity, by signing this declaration. The Canadian Federation of Students recently issued this letter:
Hopefully more organizations, especially those with historic relationships with Nicaragua, will speak out as well. In the meantime, Canadians can contact The Right Honourable Chrystia Freeland, MP, Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons
Fax: 613-996-9607 Chrystia.Freeland@parl.gc.ca
cc: The Hon. Hélène Laverdière, MP
Fax: 613-995-8461 Helene.Laverdiere@parl.gc.ca
The Hon. Erin O’Toole, MP
Fax: 613-992-2794 Erin.OToole@parl.gc.ca
…to ask that Canada demand that the Nicaraguan government immediately disband its paramilitaries and guarantee basic human rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and safety of person.
There are other recommended actions in this Amnesty report. To learn more, you can visit various Facebook pages such as Sos Nicaragua Global -English, Stand with Nicaragua, and news sites that monitor Nicaraguan affairs such as 100% Noticias (on the web) and the venerable Envío that has been publishing since 1981. The Group of Independent Interdisciplinary Experts issued this comprehensive, damning report in the fall.
Lori Hanson, a Canadian health care worker and educator with long, deep ties to Nicaragua, wrote Side Effects: Persecution of Health Workers in Nicaragua in late August, and with Miguel Gomez in June, wrote Deciphering the Nicaraguan Student Uprising for the North American Congress on Latin America. Dr Mary Ellsberg published A Massacre, Not a Coup: A Response to Misinformation on Nicaragua in August. Niú Review published an excellent photo essay after 100 days of the uprising. The young feminist “Comandante Macha” speaks from exile here. These links represent a tiny sampling of coverage and analysis of what has been taking place there.
The young leaders, feminists and environmentalists, the campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean activists are inspiring solidarity around the world with their courage, vision and smiles. Today, a large group bravely gathered in Managua, most with no face masks to protect their identities in front of live video to announce the formation of Unidad Nacional Azul Y Blanco (Blue & White National Unity).
We believe that Nicaraguans will eventually free themselves. These days, anyone can lend a hand in many ways, no matter where they live.
#SOSNicaragua ¡Nicaragua vencerá! (Nicaragua will win)