Living With Dissent
issue 156 | February 1986
issue 156 | February 1986
Living with dissent
LEON, the second city of Nicaragua, is about 90 kilometres north-west as the crow flies - or two hours as the bus crawls. Not the most comfortable ride, but it only costs me about five cents, so it seems churlish to complain.
I have a lot to learn about seating tactics. About halfway through the journey a seat suddenly became vacant in front of me. I hesitate a moment too long. Within seconds a youth of about 14 has launched himself into the air from about ten feet away and clambers over my shoulder.
As if to make amends, he offers to hold the bag of the lady standing next to me. But then l see he spends the rest of the journey surreptitiously examining her belongings. Should I blow the whistle? Fortunately he hasn't found anything worth stealing by the time we reach Leon, so I'm let off the hook.
Leon is a solid old Spanish colonial city - a refreshing change from the dislocated confusion of Managua. Massive churches stand sentinel every couple of blocks. And there is one so old, wizened and encrusted with weeds down in the Indian quarter of Subtiava that it looks as though it has been excavated from under the sea.
The Catholic Church as an institution also used to stand solidly in the centre of Nicaraguan life. And it is still a dominant influence. But the upper stories now rest very uneasily on the foundations.
At the top you have Cardinal Obando y Bravo, a conservative who claims that the Church is being persecuted by godless marxists. Though a rather unimpressive person, he has become a figurehead of opposition to the Sandinistas and has been making highly publicised tours round the country - all rapturously covered by the right-wing paper La Prensa. The Catholic Radio station also promotes his visits with jolly little jingles which praise him as 'our faithful friend' and finish with: 'Viva el Cardinal! Cardinal Miguel!.'
The Sandinistas took exception to weekly televised sermons with which he tried to rally the opposition. Unless, they said, he was prepared to alternate with other preachers they would stop televising his masses. He refused, so they pulled out the plug.
Lower down in the hierarchy you have the 'popular church'; priests - often working in the poorer barrios - who see the Sandinistas' revolution as totally consistent with the ideas of liberation theology.
Father José Maria Delgado, for example, is the parish priest of La Merced in Leon.
The outside walls of the church are still pockmarked with the bullet holes they acquired during the street battles of the revolution. I meet him inside at the altar rails, where he is fixing up a christening for a young couple and dutifully admiring the child - 'very handsome'.
He is young-looking, almost baby-faced, though probably in his mid-thirties. And is very wary of speaking on the record. But, as far as he's concerned, the revolution has opened up new avenues for the Church. It has even given him the chance to broadcast.
'I was here,' he says, 'during the fiercest period of the Somoza repression when there was real persecution for any priest who even talked about justice. But since the Triumph I've been broadcasting a mass from here, every Saturday morning and Sunday evening. We pay for the time. But it's very cheap - even though we reach such a large part of the country. We have an enormous audience.
'It's a traditional service. Rosary and mass, plus the sermon. I can say what I like, be as critical as I like. There has never been any censorship, no pre-recording, just direct. It's a great opportunity for us to preach the Word of God, to make criticisms, and to demonstrate the freedom of worship and expression that does exist in Nicaragua.'
He is careful to emphasise that the divisions which exist within the Church are practical rather than theological, about politics rather than questions of belief.
'No-one is doubting the resurrection of Christ, no-one is doubting the existence of the Holy Spirit.' The problems occur, he says, when it comes down to specific political options like the 'option for the poor' of which the Latin American Bishops spoke at their famous conference at Medellin in Colombia in 1968. 'When one speaks about the poor, about injustice, there will always be different political conceptions.'
'Different political conceptions' seems to be a constant theme running through the whole of Nicaragua. It's as though the upheaval of the revolution has released the kind of tensions and contradictions that run through every society. In Nicaragua, however, they are open for everyone to see, with the whole world as an audience. People suggest to me every so often that there is some restraint on free speech, but I never seem to have difficulty finding people prepared to speak their mind.
I walk unannounced, for example, into the Chamber of Commerce in Leon. Easy enough to do, because, when they pull up the shutters, the whole of the office opens out onto the street. Leon is the commercial centre of Nicaragua: as good a place as any to get a businessman's point of view. And Benjamin Munoz is very willing to oblige.
He's the owner of a salt works and of a car parts business. But he's also the Chamber's Vice-President. He takes me into what I suppose must be the 'chamber', a back room lined with solemn portraits of past Presidents, parks a Pepsi-Cola in front of me - and then lets fly at the Sandinistas. (See the box below)
Ask for a spokesperson anywhere in the world and chances are that it will be a man who steps forward. Time to redress the balance, I reckon, if only a little. So I seek out women's organization AMNLAE. These are the initials of the Louisa Amanda Espinosa Woman's Association - named after the first woman F SLN combatant who died fighting the Somoza dictatorship.
The mass exodus of Somoza's supporters after his eventual defeat did have the merit of leaving a lot of very useful vacant property.
And AMNLAE's offices, like many others, turn out to be a converted house, with rooms round a leafy courtyard. It's here that I meet Rosa Zelaya, one of the organization's representatives in the north of the city.
'This is the place,' she says, 'where women can come to get support.' And AMNLAE can indeed claim credit for such changes as there have been in the lives of Nicaraguan women.
'Before the Triumph, women could usually only get jobs as maids. Our husbands would exploit us at home and the patron would exploit us at work. Now we have a broader range of things open to us; office jobs like typing, and there are many women training to be nurses.'
She points to a collection of photographs on the wall showing women going through military exercises. 'That's the Veronica Lacayo Battalion. It's named after one of the guerrilla fighters in the revolution and is made up completely of women. We are all volunteers; it's a reserve battalion and we've just spent seven months away in training. The women's unit plays a kind of support role to the regular army - as messengers for instance.
To see what the women were doing now, we walked up to the north of the city where AMNLAE had a meeting. On the way we passed a scene straight out of Middle America. A little-league baseball team was filing out of the Leon stadium, all kitted out in their bright red uniforms and caps and clambering into the back of a pick-up truck.
Baseball is something of an obsession in Nicaragua. 'You wouldn't have seen that ten years ago', said Rosa, 'young children in a poor district getting the chance to use the stadium and the equipment.'
The women's meeting turns out to be mainly about cooking vegetables - important in a country where most child malnutrition seems not to be caused not so much by a shortage of food, but by not making the best use of what is available. Hardly in the forefront of women's rights, you might think. But AMNLAE seems to place as much emphasis on getting women to support each other in their domestic role as on the wider feminist issues.
In the evening I entertain a couple of crooks to dinner. They are the proprietors of the San Juan import/export agency and claim to make their money by importing spares for Russian tractors from Canada. I'll swear that's what they say. But they have had a fair amount of rum by this time - so some things are not coming out as clear as they might. I should also add that this meeting is entirely fortuitous. We are having to share a table in a very full restaurant.
'We should be careful, talking like this,' says Mr Riguero, a rather shifty-looking character, who beckons me closer. 'I don't want to go back to jail.'
What has he been in jail for, I wonder?
'I got ten years for "speculation" but they let me out after three months because of the lack of evidence.' Very charitable, it seems to me. I would have convicted him on sight.
What was it like in jail?
'Oh, not too bad. Three meals a day at least. So it's not much better outside. Do you know we actually have rationing here? What sort of freedom is that?'
At this point my meal shows up. Out of politeness, since I don't want to start eating before them, I ask if they are having dinner here.
'If you invite us.'
(There's no way out of that.)
The conversation circles around. They claim that 75 per cent of the population is against the government. I point out that there were free elections here. They accuse me of being a Sandinista. But I must be redeeming myself later on, as Mr Riguero gives me his secret business telephone number so that I can have a further consultation.
As we part company outside in the street he wonders if he has said too much. 'Will those two meals you bought,' he asks dramatically, 'cost us ten years in jail?'
I somehow doubt it, but I'm not sure I care either way.