As the human toll mounted in the final months of the Nicaraguan civil war, volunteer solidarity committees sprung up across Canada - raising money for medical and food aid to war victims and building support for the Sandinista victory against the dictatorial regime of the Somoza family.
Faced with apathy and opposition from Canadian officials - apart from a widespread and active campaign by the Canadian Labour Congress - voluntary organisations have had to fight an uphill battle to make known Nicaragua’s plight.
The war was front-page copy as long as the fighting continued, but the issue was quickly demoted when the ageing dictator Somoza was finally forced to flee the country. With the Sandinista victory and the establishment of a Provisional Government of National Reconstruction, the Canadian press turned its attention to alleged Russian and Cuban influence. The real story (the destruction of towns, villages and foodlands, the deaths and injuries of thousands of Nicaraguans and the daunting job of reconstruction) remained untold.
Against these odds the response of the voluntary sector has been impressive. From Vancouver to Halifax solidarity coalitions have brought together Latin American exiles, Third World education and support groups churches and trade unions in broad-based spontaneous actions. The first priority for some has been to persuade the Federal Government, and the Canadian International Development Agency - its foreign aid arm - to grant relief and reconstruction assistance to Nicaragua. Other groups have chosen to raise funds and supplies directly for forwarding to Nicaragua.
One of the largest material aid groups is the Medical Aid to Nicaragua Committee (MATN). Begun in Vancouver in June, the Committee now also has an Ontario branch based in Toronto. Funds are raised through appeals to doctors, lawyers, university professors and other professionals; mailings to community and political groups; and approaches to businesses for in-kind donations.
The MATN money is channelled through Oxfam-Canada and its sister organisation in Belgium. In July the Sandinista Front placed Oxfam-Belgique in charge of all international aid administration in the northwestern region of Nicaragua.
The response to the MATN appeal has been encouraging. Organisers are confident of reaching the 75,000 target. Compared to the substantial sums of Nicaraguan aid coming from sources in Western Europe, the MATN target seems modest. But in the harsh political climate that now prevails in ‘official’ Canada, the meaning of the voluntary solidarity effort far outstrips the monetary goal.
Canadian Medical Aid to Nicaragua, 175 Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario. and 2524 Cypress Street, Vancouver, B.C.
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