At a polling station in the small Nicaraguan town of Condega in 1928, a US Marine sergeant walked in, slammed his pistol down on the table and said: 'I'm the law here.' The Nicaraguan elections that year were supervised by the Marines and directed by an American general. This was nothing new. Since Tennessee adventurer William Walker took over Nicaragua in the 1850s in an effort to bring it into the Union as a slave state, the US had invaded and occupied Nicaragua repeatedly.
This time the occupation provoked a guerrilla uprising led by a charismatic Nicaraguan general named Augusto Sandino. When the Marines failed to defeat Sandino, Washington subcontracted the job: it installed the Somoza dynasty which assassinated Sandino and ran Nicaragua for 43 years as a family plantation, with US support. Then in 1979 the Sandinistas, a band of leftists, nationalists and Christians overthrew the Somoza dictatorship only to face the ire of US President Ronald Reagan.
In the 1980s Reagan declared war on the Sandinistas and derailed their plans to build an alternative future for their homeland. Today the country is not even a blip on Washington's radar.
Not that I had stumbled into some proletarian paradise. By 1986, Reagan's attack had opened deep rifts in the country. Some enemies of the Government were jailed and others had their lands or businesses expropriated. A newspaper was temporarily shut down after its editor lobbied Washington for aid to the 'contra' forces opposing the Sandinistas.
But while the US-funded militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala were murdering thousands of civilians, violence against the Nicaraguan opposition was rare. And for the first time in the country's history, Nicaraguans could criticize their government without reprisals.
In many areas, the Sandinistas did the things that every government of a poor country ought to do.
They conducted one of the largest, most effective land reforms in Latin American history, granting land titles to 184,000 poor families in the countryside and urban shantytowns.
They quadrupled public spending on healthcare, built free health clinics and involved thousands of volunteers in vaccination campaigns - measures that cut the infant mortality rate in half and extended life expectancy by seven years.
And they tripled education spending, extending free public schooling to all. Within a year 100,000 student volunteers went out into the countryside and reduced the country's illiteracy rate from over 50 per cent to 13 per cent.
Under Somoza strikes had been routinely suppressed and union leaders jailed. During the Sandinista period, labor union membership grew from 6 per cent to 55 per cent of the workforce. Although branded 'communist' by Washington, Nicaragua's economy remained mixed: only 39 per cent of industrial production and 11 per cent of farmland was in public hands. It was a Latin American version of a West European, social democratic economy, more like Sweden or France than Soviet-style state socialism. It was precisely this threat of a reasonable leftist example that made the US Right so hell-bent on destroying the experiment. As Reagan's contra war and economic embargo intensified and Latin America's economic crisis deepened, Nicaragua's coffers were eventually bled dry. In 1988, with hyperinflation looming, the Sandinistas were finally forced to implement a painful austerity package of budget cuts and currency devaluations.
When I left at eleven the opposition had won the district four to one. Stepping out into the cool night under the Milky Way I felt as though history had paused for a moment. At the end of a decade-long war enemies were working side-by-side and respecting the results.
In the 1990 vote the Sandinistas took the hit for the economic meltdown and the long years of war. Nicaraguans gave opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro's coalition a landslide. They also punished the Sandinista party, the FSLN, for an arrogant campaign style and top-down leadership. But the Sandinistas passed the acid test of formal democracy: swallowing a bitter defeat. I heard FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega on the radio the morning after the vote, his voice hoarse with sleeplessness, urging his supporters to reconcile themselves with their fellow Nicaraguans and respect their votes.
From a ruined bus shelter padded with garbage a barefoot man in rags with matted, dripping hair stared out into the clouds. People called him Standing Man because they said he had been standing in that spot for the last ten years. According to one theory he had been everywhere in the world and now he was standing there because he couldn't decide where to go next - a fixed point in the syncopated Bluefields firmament.
The rest of Nicaragua has spent the 1990s in its own sort of paralysis, locked in conflicts over the future direction of the country. Chamorro's winning coalition quickly dissolved into factions while the losing FSLN, the political force with the strongest base, flexed its muscles in the street.
For most of the period the economy continued to shrivel. Austerity measures by Chamorro tamed inflation but sank Nicaragua into a savage depression. Over 70 per cent of the people were living in poverty and more than half were unemployed or hustling in the 'informal economy'. Illiteracy and infant mortality rose substantially, while life expectancy actually fell. Nicaragua became the second-poorest country in the Hemisphere, after Haiti.
When I visited again in the fall of 1996 to cover the presidential elections, flocks of malnourished kids would descend on cars at stoplights to try to sell chiclets or clean the windshields. Prostitution was a growth industry: outside the hotels and along the highways 14-year-old girls dressed up like prom night cruised for tricks. Nicaragua's strategic
In those elections a right-wing alliance again defeated the Sandinistas. The new president, Arnoldo Alemán, had been a leader of the Somoza youth group. His administration, egged on by US Senator Jesse Helms, has worked to return property and power to the wealthy Nicaraguans who fled to Miami after Somoza's fall.
Since his victory Alemán has sometimes shown his repressive pedigree, attacking critical media and non-profit groups, proposing a law to outlaw most demonstrations, and helping foreign-owned sweatshops defeat union organizing. His administration, mired in corruption scandals, has signed structural adjustment plans with the International Monetary Fund and made the mandated deep social-spending cuts. When his financial comptroller attempted to investigate improprieties in his administration he jailed the official. For their part, the Sandinistas have failed to offer clear economic alternatives. The FSLN, which began as a military organization, still suffers internally from top-down decision-making. Self-enrichment by some leaders as they left office in 1990 also seriously damaged the Front which had built up a relatively clean reputation in the 1980s. Critics now see certain sectors of Nicaraguan business as the party's dominant force.
In 1998 the FSLN was devastated by still- unresolved accusations by the stepdaughter of twice
Still, split into factions and out of power, many Sandinistas and ex-Sandinistas have maintained a sense of outrage at the injustices corroding Nicaraguan society. And recently a wide-ranging alliance of civil-society groups from across the political spectrum has coalesced to fight corruption and press for accountability in government.
For many Latin Americans it represented the death of a more humane revolution - a forceful warning to future heretics who might challenge the one true doctrine of unfettered international finance, privatization and 'flexible' labor markets..
Nicaragua was also a defeat for many North Americans who hoped to put an end to a century-and-a-half of arrogance and brutality cloaked in the Monroe Doctrine. Quashing rebellion in the tropics gave US corporations more low-wage havens abroad to move operations to and more desperate immigrants to hire here, thus helping to suppress wages in the basement of our split-level economy.
As Latin Americans flow north and Canadian and US jobs go south, the fates of workers up and down the hemisphere have intertwined like bindweed in the thickets of transnational investment.
Although the US still seems an island of prosperity, it is rapidly becoming a piece of a poor and turbulent continent. The bell long tolling for Latin Americans is beginning to toll for us as well. How can we hope to defend our own economic security without also broadening our self-interest to encompass support for Latin Americans' efforts to improve their standard of living?
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