issue 156 | February 1986
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
issue 156 | February 1986
'I WAS in tears the night they declared the emergency,' says Theresa Gomez, a schoolteacher from Managua. 'We seemed to have lost our freedom - to hold meetings, demonstrate in the streets. Even the privacy of our mail and our homes.'
But her tears were not for a loss of individual liberty. More for the revolution itself - which appeared to have been pushed into authoritarianism to hold the country together.
I was not in tears that night. But I was shocked when I heard the news. Not surprised that Nicaragua should have a state of emergency: it's a reasonable step for any country at war. More disturbing was the likely effect on international opinion. Indeed I first heard the announcement on the Voice of America - which made no effort to disguise its glee at this new 'repressive' move by the Sandinistas.
I was in Ocotal when I heard the news. Now it's now four days later. I'm back in Managua and I still can't work out what it was all about. Nothing seems to have changed. No frightened groups of people whispering on street corners. No spot checking of documents. No curfew - the discos still do a roaring and vibrating trade on a Saturday night. Even the opponents of the regime don't seem too concerned.
'We had already lost our freedom,' says a rather frail old man who stops me in the street to ask me to change money. 'What difference can a state of emergency make now?'
'Basta de impunidad!, 'screams a headline in Barricada. 'They won't get away with it!'. 'They' in this case being those who have been conspiring against the country. With these new restrictions, says the paper, traitors will be easier to discover. But I saw several truckloads of plotters paraded to the press only a day or so ago - all of them caught before the state of emergency had been declared. Why do they need yet more powers?
My fears about the international reaction are soon realized. Friends in my guest house are getting anxious calls from Canada wondering what is going on. Some of the solidarity groups in the US even feel betrayed somehow by the Sandinistas.
But a consensus starts to emerge on the reasons for the emergency. The first has to do with the Catholic hierarchy. This, it is alleged, was about to launch a campaign to encourage young men to evade the draft. (A new magazine, Iglesia, with an article inciting them to do so has been seized at the printers).
Then there is the Sandinistas' nervousness about the 'internal front'. The Army might be containing the contras at the frontiers but the counter-revolutionaries within the population seemed to be making steady progress. The group I had seen had apparently been caught more or less by accident.
A third, and perhaps decisive, fear on the part of the Sandinistas arose out of rumours of a general strike in Managua protesting against low wage levels and provoked by either right or left-wing trade unions - a strike which the Government, and the country, can ill afford.
But today is Sunday, maybe the day to take a rest from such speculation. And in the evening I make for the Riguero district of Managua, to attend the 'campesino mass' of Father Uriel Molina. He has the reputation of being a fiery exponent of 'liberation theology' and holds a mass every Sunday evening that draws, not just the people of the poor barrio around his church, but also some of the resident internacionalistas and the occasional busload of tourists.
The church of Santa Maria de los Angeles is a spectacle all of its own. Constructed like a circular circus tent, it has been transformed inside by an vivid and colourful mural - a rich profusion of soldiers and campesinos, of flags and national heroes, painted not just on the walls, but extending to the supporting struts and floating panels so that they appear to soar off in all directions.
The media this evening are represented by the NI and by a Swiss television crew who illuminate the scene with harsh spotlights. The church is only half full. Dipping in and out of the lights is a small, bespectacled, clerical figure whom I assume to be some kind of supporting curate arranging the vestments.
But then the guitars and tambourines strike up with the opening hymn.
You are the God of the poor the human and simple God
the God sweating in the streets
the God with the suntanned face I've seen you queuing up
for your daily wages
I've seen you selling lottery tickets without shame
I've seen you checking the tyres of a truck in a gas station.....
The sermon starts a minute or so later and it is clear that the little cleric is Father Molina. He's in a plain white robe with just flashes of red and yellow woven as a traditional pattern into his stole. He stands in front of the altar quietly for a moment and then explodes into voice.
'We have a state of emergency! Rights have been suspended. Liberty of the press has been restrained. The right to travel and the right to strike have been curtailed.
'The Government must have thought the position was really serious. And it is. But the state of emergency is for the good of the country. It's like when you have to hold back a little boy to stop him hurting himself. 'But what has been the reaction overseas? The Voice of America says it is now obvious that this is a dictatorship. The BBC is saying that even the right of asylum in church has been lost. They are both absolutely wrong!'
He has a radio mike in his hands and strides backwards and forwards, filling the church with the reverberation of his voice. He's also filling the church with people. I'm sure they must be able to hear all this for many streets around and they are making their way in here.
'There are even people inside the country who say that we have become a totalitarian state. But they are allowed to say this in public. And that just proves that we are not. Any power can be tyrannical - or it can serve the poor. Would the agrarian reform have been possible without the new power which we have? No! Would the literacy campaign have been possible? No!'
His voice rises and rises to a pitch at which it seems certain to break. At the last second he relents and drops a couple of octaves, only to start climbing again.
'The captain of the boat who is sailing into a storm will batten down the hatches to secure the vessel. Nicaragua is a legally constituted state which has had free elections to choose its government. Individual liberty is vital but it has to give way to a superior need - that of saving a whole people!'
This fervent rhythm permeates the whole of the sermon and the mass which follows - helped by the thud of drums and the impulse of some stirring music. The schoolgirls next to me are laughing and cheering all the way through. And when it comes to 'Let us give each other the sign of peace' (which, in British churches at least, is usually the time to exchange a brief handshake with your neighbour) the whole congregation rises up and rushes round embracing each other for five to ten minutes. The proceedings are further delayed by an amiable tramp who refuses to release Father Molina from an enthusiastic hug.
The next day I am still trying to make sense of all this: the emergency and the aftermath. The Government is already starting to back-pedal on the measures it announced - apparently surprised by the international hostility they provoked. Vice-President Sergio Ramirez calls the foreign diplomats together to 'clarify' the position. It is nothing like as serious as it seems, he argues. Indeed some of the suspended rights, like privacy of the home, are now to be 'unsuspended'. But by now the damage has been done. The Sandinistas appear, in public-relations terms (and not for the first time), to have shot themselves in the foot.
Seeking some kind of explanation, I head for the two non-official daily newspapers. The first stop is La Prensa to look at the censorship notice board' outside their front door. This is where they pin up all the articles which the censors have excised from the paper for the last couple of days. They all seemed pretty innocuous to me. I can see why the Sandinistas would be irritated by ecstatic reports of a visit of Cardinal Miguel's to New York. But the report on the stock levels of Maggi soups in the supermarket and the general level of shortages seem a lot milder than many which actually appear in Barricada or El Nuevo Diario.
These collections of censored articles are regularly circulated by La Prensa to the embassies in Managua, as well as to the foreign press. So I pop into the office for my copy, only to be told that the service has had to be suspended because of a shortage of photocopying paper (presumably also unreportable because of the censorship).
The offices of El Nuevo Diario are virtually next door to La Prensa. Indeed this paper was set up as a breakaway from La Prensa by staff disgusted with the lurch to the right it took after the revolution.
El Nuevo Diario is edited by Xavier Chamorro, a heavy-set soft-spoken man, who, though he is a supporter of the Government, is strongly opposed to censorship. As far as the state of emergency goes, he thinks (as you will see in the box) that Nicaragua has been unfairly treated. President Alfonsin of Argentina has, he points out, just declared a state of emergency there and provoked not a murmur of protest in the international press.
Nicaragua is unfairly treated. In any other country an internal security crackdown, real or unreal, would have more impact within the country than overseas. Nicaragua's domestic policy seems, however, to stir up powerful emotions throughout the world. And this is something that the leadership has to take into consideration, whether it likes it or not - because Nicaragua is a dependent country.
There is no foreseeable pattern of development - economic, political, or military - that would make this poor and tiny nation self-sufficient. For all the nationalist Sandinista rhetoric, its leaders will always have to rely on foreign powers for trade and for military and political support. The US used to fulfill this role. Now, for reasons outside Nicaragua's control, that dependence is passing to Europe - East and West.
Nor does it have much choice in terms of economic policy. The Sandinistas run a mixed economy out of sheer necessity. Most of the farms and the factories stay in private hands because the Government knows it is in no position to take them over and make them work - certainly not now and probably not in the future.
The choices are similarly limited on the political front. The Sandinistas know they can't rely on the permanent loyalty of a majority of the population. Perhaps only 20 per cent of the population consider themselves to be fervent Sandinistas. Another 50 per cent would choose them as the best government currently available. And the final 30 per cent would be in the active or passive opposition.
So the Sandinistas know they can govern only by consent. The chances of getting an army and a police force that were created on an idealistic wave of popular insurrection to turn against the mass of the people and repress them are as close to zero as makes no difference - certainly not now and probably not in the future. In these circumstances political pluralism is not a choice, it's an imperative.
Given this confused and muddled brew of loyalties and ideologies, the Sandinistas' room for manoeuvre is much more limited than one might think. Indeed the more left-wing elements among them could only impose a more centralised form of government if a heightened external threat gave them license to batten down the hatches still further.
What chance do right-wing forces outside the country have of influencing events? Also probably less than they think. The response to any further contra successes is likely to be a further tightening up of security rather than negotiations with the contras. And an outright military invasion by the US - though it might well have an initial success, Grenada fashion, in taking the seat of government - would initiate a punishing war of attrition from battle-hardened Sandinistas who have won before and know they can win again.
If internal freedom in Nicaragua is the objective, the swiftest and most efficient way of achieving this would be to let the Sandinistas and their democratically elected opposition resolve their differences in open debate. After even a short time in the country, it strikes me that there are enough checks and balances of ideas and ideologies for Nicaraguans to be able to resolve for themselves what Nicaragua should be.
The most reasonable and sensible US policy towards Nicaragua would be to leave the country alone. It is unfortunate for the US and tragic for Nicaragua - that neither reason nor sense are being brought into play.
The Nicaraguan people have an altogether saner approach to life and politics - as I see from the total insanity that pervades my final day in the country. I have hitched a ride with the coordinators of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, a British volunteer group. And we're off to Masaya, a town to the south of Managua. Just to have a look round. But when we get there there seems to be something strange going on - for one thing, the streets are full of transvestites.
We stop in one of the plazas where a crowd has gathered round a fountain in which a body is floating face down. After an age it slowly stands up. Drunk - and doing it for a bet. Indeed quite a few people are the worse (or the better) for rum.
This is the fiesta of San Jeronimo, though what all this debauchery has to do with a fairly ascetic saint is not clear. It goes on for a month or so but today looks like one of the highlights.
A parade passes through the street. And it seems like a nightmarish reprise of my month of travel. The male transvestites, I discover, are dressed up to represent the (often female) black-market traders. Masked men in uniforms, squirting water at the crowd, play the fumigators who have been spraying the streets with a filthy smelling chemical against the dengue mosquito. Others in military fatigues are pushing a cart labelled 'State Security Police' and are light-heartedly coshing the spectators. The 'Queen of the maize' gyrates along swivelling her / his hips in as suggestive and fertile a fashion as s/he can manage. Another man in a huge animal head is 'Wolfman Jack' (whoever he might be). Next comes 'President Reagan' riding a donkey and holding a puppy labelled El Chiguin, the nickname for Somoza's son. On and on it goes
I'm grabbed by a friendly drunk - 'Come, my friend, we must sit down and talk'.
'I'd love to. But not now I'm afraid. No time left, got to go. maybe some other time. next year. right - it's a date.'
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