A trip to Nicaragua in 1984

The secret war was heating up and it looked like my last chance to see Nicaragua. Christmas vacation came and I headed south, down through Mexico and Central America.

Chickens and pigs are something you expect to ride with, that's part of bus service anywhere in the Third World. But in Nicaragua I found myself literally hanging out the door with the bus going 40 miles per hour. Over the driver's seat was a sticker reading (in Spanish): "I put my passengers in the hands of God."

No irony was intended. It's just part of a normal everyday Nicaraguan bus ride that the last two or three people aboard are likely to be hanging out the door. But I did get an excellent view.

Many Nicaraguans hitchhike. Soldiers, teachers, housewives, and farmers all would be out there hitchhiking, and so I did likewise. Most rides were on army trucks. "Here you see how Nicaragua has changed with the revolution," Jairo Contreras, an enthusiastic young member of the reserve, told me. Back under Somoza, if you saw a civilian riding in a National Guard truck, that poor guy was under arrest, being hauled off to jail! The National Guard was the private property of Somoza, but the Sandinista army belongs to us!"

About every fifth man was a soldier, and many women too. Female combat units were common. ("Cute, aren't there?" was Contreras' opinion.) The man or woman you stood next to on the bus, sat beside in a movie or saw hitchhiking was likely to be a solder with his AK-47.

But I never saw the army harass civilians by search buses—a thing I experienced in Guatemala, Honduras, and even parts of Mexico.

Contreras was only 20, but he'd already served two years in the Sandinista army and was now in the reserve. He worked as a bank teller in Matagalpa and this was his day off. Arriving in Jinotega, we wandered around, looking at the former National Guard Headquarters and where battles had been fought. He'd been 15 then and had wanted to join the Sandinistas, but his mother didn't let him.

We traveled together most of the day, hitching rides on several army trucks; and when we parted he gave me a small prayer booklet, "To remember me by," he said. "Soy muy Caltolico."

That surprised me, but in Nicaragua I learned to expect the unexpected. Bookstores would have Bibles on the shelf next to Karl Marx—and that was the norm. The government-owned radio often played American as well as Mexican music, and T-shirts with Japanese writing are as much the fad there as here. Every city has its Bank of America, and outside Managua stood a Bank of America billboard reading: "Su compañero en la reconstrucción." (Your companion in the reconstruction). Another bank billboard advertised (in Spanish): "Five years of service to the revolution."

We've all heard the Pope screaming at this Marxist Catholics, but I would like to hear Bank of America explain these billboards to Mr. Reagan.

I took buses where they went, and where they didn't I hitchhiked. That's how people travel there and it was a good way of meeting them. In Matagalpa, I walked out to the edge of town, where a bunch of people were trying to hitch rides, and somebody yelled at me, "Where are you going?"

I turned around and it was a woman I'd seen on the bus from Sebaco. Like many Nicaraguans, she had an American name: Janet. She was traveling with her sister and another woman who were school teachers in a small mountain village some 20 kilometers east of there, apparently close to where the Contras operated. This was their first year out of teacher training, they told me, and the first assignment for a teacher was usually somewhere in the hills.

I showed them a map where I intended to go. Janet shook her head, "Don't go that way. The Contras would bother a traveler just passing through."

Janet's sister simply picked up her three-year-old daughter. With typical Nicaraguan bluntness, she slid her finger across the child's throat and said, "Contras even murder children."

I took a different rout (That was before Ronald Reagan assured us all that the Contras are the "moral equals of our founding fathers.")

The way I went, through La Concordia, was safer. But two days later I arrived in Estelí bought a newspaper and read that the Contras had entered a village not far from where I'd been and murdered two farmers for supporting the Sandinistas.

Several thousand people have died over the last three years, but it's more like a crime wave than a war. It was like when I used to live in San Francisco and every so often a mom-and-pop grocery would be held up by a trigger-crazy gunman and somebody was killed. It happened all the time, but nobody stayed home because of it. Life went on. And Nicaragua is sort of like that today; a country in the midst of a gigantic crime wave.

Although I saw little in the way of physical war damage, people would point to abandoned construction projects, un-repaired roads, and over-crowed buses and say, "This is the war damage. We have to spend everything on defending ourselves."

Despite the war, nobody showed any anger towards me for being an American. In fact, we seem to have a fairly good image today in Nicaragua. That's probably because the Marines are something they've only read about and wealthy tourists go elsewhere to do their conspicuous consumption act. But since the revolution, thousands of foreigners have been visiting that country. They are generally young, idealistic, educated and speak some Spanish. These are the foreigners that Nicaraguans see, meet and talk with.

While I hardly expected to be the only foreigner there, I was quite unprepared for the dozens of Canadians, Germans, Italians, Australians, Scandinavians and Americans I met. I imagine our country was something like that 200 years ago when idealistic Europeans came to see what we were doing.

This must be what the Sandinistas want, because they openly encourage people to come and look at Nicaragua. Not every government will tolerate hundreds and thousands of nosy foreigners who go around asking, "How do you like your government?"

Last fall the Sandinistas held elections and won 67 percent of the vote. This election was observed by a delegation of American scholars from the Latin American Studies Association who called it "a model of probity and fairness."

I was particularly interested in hearing what people I met there would say, and what I saw and heard in Nicaragua convinces me the majority do indeed support the Sandinista government.

I also talked to some who were very anti-Sandinista, like a rancher who told me, "This government is very totalitarian! If you criticize anything, the police haul you off to jail!"

But he obviously wasn't in jail. People showed no fear of criticizing the government, with the loudest critic being the newspaper La Prensa, which is openly pro-Reagan and criticizes the Sandinistas on everything. On January 22, La Prensa printed lengthy excerpts from Reagan's inaugural speech with front page headlines, "La libertad está en marcha, dijo Reagan."

La Prensa was on sale everywhere the pro-government papers Barricada and Nuevo Diario were, and it appeared to account for almost one third of the papers sold.

The editor periodically comes to the United States and complains about censorship—which has occurred on several occasions. But after reading that paper, I'm convinced there's very little that doesn't get into print.

All three dailies are edited by brothers and uncles of the Chamorro family. Some joined the revolution while others went wit the reaction—it's all in the family. In Managua, there are unconfirmed stories that despite their political differences, they still get together to spend Christmas.

Nicaragua is a nation of newspaper junkies, which is surprising because Latinos are generally not newspaper-reading people. But in restaurants at breakfast, everybody would have his nose in a newspaper.

Although the Managua dailies are very readable, it has to be more than pure academic interest in world affairs that turns all these people into newspaper addicts. It's probably because tiny Nicaragua today is at the center of the world stage and every country aspiring to have a foreign policy has something to say about them.

Whatever the reason, the result is that Nicaraguans are getting a real education out of this and are becoming increasingly aware and sophisticated. And this awareness is necessary for self-determination and democracy.

Daniel Borgström
December 1984