The Promised Land
5 February 1986
issue 156 | February 1986
issue 156 | February 1986
The promised land
WE'RE bowling along in some style in an air-conditioned Landcruiser, discussing Che Guevara. An assortment of hitch-hikers, mostly soldiers, fill the back seats and at the wheel is a Canadian doctor, Donald Cole.
'We were watching a film about Che last night,' says one of the passengers, 'about his capture in Bolivia. I never realised what a tough time he had'.
Latin American revolutionaries are a central part of Nicaragua's new mythology. They don't replace the old ones; appetite for North American TV and movies is as strong as ever - the most popular film going the rounds at the moment is 'Breakdance'. The new culture just seems to be a richer mixture.
'There's a delegation from the Che Guevara Association for the Disabled that's about to visit Canada,' says Donald. 'They'll be visiting centres for the handicapped, talking to people who would never consider themselves to be "political". So the name makes them a little nervous. We have to explain that Che Guevara did, after all, suffer from asthma.'
Internacionalistas like Donald, are usually here precisely because they support the kind of changes that are taking place - 'the process' as it is often called. So they accept responsibilities above and beyond the technical job at hand. That might mean acting as a link between this new Nicaragua and their home country - it can also involve giving rides to stray visitors.
Today we're headed up the west coast on the road between Leon and Chinandega. Roadside placards proclaim the sixth harvest of the local farming co-operatives. The Pacific coast has prime agricultural land given over to sugar and cotton - on plantations which were originally created by the violent eviction of many peasant farmers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today the Sandinista government, desperate for foreign exchange, is also keen on cash crops. That's why their land reform programme has been so cautious: they need the output of the 'grand bourgeoisie', the large-scale producers, if exports are to be maximised. And those who have co-operated, the 'patriotic producers', have been well rewarded, making profits of around 30 per cent by selling to the State at guaranteed prices - the Government being prepared to bear the losses of selling on a depressed world market just to keep the dollars flowing in.
They can finance this of course by paying in cordobas and having more printed when they run out - whatever the inflationary consequences. (If you look more closely at the notes, however, you can see that the cordoba bills are printed by Thomas de la Rue and Company in England, so strictly speaking even the Nicaraguan currency has to be imported.)
'You see that sugar mill over on the left', says Donald, 'it was attacked from the sea by the contras. Now most of the mills have a permanent militia guard'.
Cotton, however, is still at the core of the country's export drive. But they're not producing as much as in Somoza's day. So anything and everything is being done to expand production. This includes swamping the countryside with pesticides, with all the risks that this entails. Nicaragua is one of the world's highest per capita users of pesticides. But now, at least, the Government is doing something to mitigate the dangers
Donald Cole is a health educator. He's helping to set up a 'Pesticide Health and Safety Program'. And this expedition is a field visit to a cotton-growing co-operative. En route we pick up Robert McConnell, an visiting epidemiologist from the US Center for Disease Control, who's planning to come down to Nicaragua to work here full time.
'I was a bit taken aback when they told me that I would be paid about $5,000 a year,' he says. 'But $5,000 goes a long way in Nicaragua.'
On the Nicaraguan side the project involves about half a dozen Ministries, all of whom are confusingly referred to by their acronyms: there's MED and MITRAB and MINSA and MIDINRA and many more which I never manage to decipher. But the progamme is actually being administered by a non-governmental agency, CARE Nicaragua. And, looking at the list of funding agencies, I can see many a familiar name from the US and Canada: OXFAM, Development and Peace, the American Friends Service Committee - all organisations which normally try to distance themselves from direct links with Third World governments (whom they tend to identify as causes of poverty rather than solutions). Nicaragua, they seem to have concluded, promises something different. I should add that there is also money from the General Mills Corporation and Ciba-Geigy. All in all, quite a disparate collection.
The co-operative on whom the energy is focused this afternoon looks like a Massey-Ferguson tractor sales convention, with more spanking new machinery than I have ever seen in such modest surroundings. But then these farmers are cotton producers. And they are members of the National Union of Farmers and Cattlemen (UNAG). With both these credentials they are likely to get preferential access to imports.
Bugs Bunny is on the television when we walk into Felichieve Garía's house. He's President of the co-operative, a large, round cheerful man, who soon dispatches the kids outside so we can get down to business.
'We're a "credit and service" co-op' he explains. 'That means we work our land individually. There are 40 members, but we come together to buy pesticides and machinery. Three of these tractors belong to the co-operative. We bought them through UNAG. Most of our land is used for cotton but we also grow maize.'
Wouldn't he prefer to work in a co-operative where everybody shared the land and the work - a production co-operative?
'No. In a production co-operative some people carry the others. Here we know we have to rely on ourselves. But it is efficient too - we all have our cotton land together so the plane can spray it all at once.'
Robert McConnell comes in. They've been pricking thumbs, taking blood samples to test for the effects of pesticides, and now it's Mr Garía's turn.
Arnulfo Urbina, a small-scale cattle farmer who is also one of the local UNAG officials, has spotted me asking questions and thinks it's time to put some to me. He wants to know about Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan - and I treat him to my standard set of prejudices. Then he's asking about agriculture in Britain. Since I can tell him next to nothing about this, I try to steer the conversation quickly back to Nicaragua.
He's a strong supporter of the Frente and is scathing about the right-wing politicians who fell out with the Sandinistas after the first couple of years (see below).
When we've finished talking it's time for Donald to warn the farmers about the hazard of pesticides.
'Which of you have had pains after you have been using the back-pack sprays in the fields? What insecticides have you been using - methyl parathion?' He draws an outline human figure on a sheet of paper. And then marks on it all the possible sites of pain suggested by his audience - from a man who says he gets a rash on his arms to a woman who complains of pains in the bladder. By the time he's finished the little figure is definitely in a bad way.
'So what can you do to prevent this? One thing is to make sure you always wash after you come in from the fields.' They point out however that since the water pump broke down they don't have a supply of running water - so they usually just rub down with a cloth.
Then he calls for a volunteer and, to much ribald laughter, dresses him in all the protective gear that the well-dressed cotton-sprayer should have, from goggles to rubber boots. He looks and walks like a creature out of a 1950s horror movie.
An even more telling demonstration comes with the results of the blood tests which Robert has been analysing with his Nicaraguan assistant. These check the levels of 'cholinesterase', a blood constituent which is reduced when the body absorbs organophosphates. This is a quiet time of the year for spraying. So, although he has found that many of the levels are abnormal, they are within acceptable limits.
'But there is one person who is in a serious condition, with less than half the normal level. Freddy Mendoza Lopez. Where is he?' The man in question climbs down self-consciously from the tractor on which he has been perching and makes his way through the crowd.
'You should go to the San Vicente Hospital tomorrow,' says Robert 'This is the doctor you should see'. And he hands Freddy Lopez a slip of paper.
'I'm going to die,' says Freddie nervously, half-joking as he walks away. He's not too sure how much of a joke it might be.