Wars Come And Wars Go

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Johnstown Breeze.]

Distant memories of revolution and conflict in Nicaragua

If you're old enough to have a wrinkle or two, perhaps you remember something about the 1979 overthrow of the ruthless Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and the war of the U.S.-financed Contras against the country's Sandinista government during the 1980s. You may be able to visualize the famous image of a young man in a Che Guevara-esque beret throwing a Molotov cocktail from behind street barricades, or recall the photo of a young woman Sandinista soldier breast-feeding her child, an automatic weapon slung over her shoulder.

Maybe you remember the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra scandal, which occurred after Congress refused to continue financing the Contras due to their human rights violations; after the funds were cut, administration insiders illegally obtained funds for the Contras through covert arms sales to the Iranians. Or maybe you only remember the "Saturday Night Live" satire of news anchors enthusiastically over-pronouncing place names like Mah nah GWAAH, Neee cah rah GWAAH….

Most Americans probably have dim recollections of that war, and a dimmer yet perception of the reality of the small Central American country today. Nicaraguans, on the other hand, are trying to forget the conflict, but often find themselves reminded of its legacy.

Nicaragua today: Baseball, hot dogs, fried plantains and…a long, difficult recovery

Nicaragua is a volcanic country the size of New York State; it possesses lakes, rainforest and a beauty that intoxicates. Its people are known for their humor and vitality. These qualities may help them cope with the daily miseries the country's deep poverty brings; according to UN statistics, nearly 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

You might expect otherwise, but Nicaraguans maintain a steadfast fondness for things American: clothes, music, language, culture. Baseball is an obsession throughout the country, and hotdogs (sometimes spelled "hotdocs") are sold by vendors in cities, although they don't outrank such treats as fried pork rinds and plantain chips in popularity.

Some visitors to Nicaragua seek out vestiges of the Sandinista revolution, only to find that little more than echoes and shadows remain. One may encounter a small "Museum of Heroes and Martyrs" to honor the war dead, or a mural of revolutionary leaders. Rarely, a red and black Sandinista flag flies over a home or business. Yes, there is a "Cuba, We're With You" mural visible along a main traffic artery in the capitol city of Managua, but it seems shouted down by the surrounding advertisements for Pepsi, pizza, convenience stores and casinos. It's been said that Nicaragua has a case of unrequited love for the United States.

Over the years its people embraced many aspects of American culture, but the object of their admiration didn't exactly given them tokens of affection in return. Instead, Nicaragua received 21 years of U.S. occupation during the early part of the 20th century, then more than 40 years of support for dictators. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly said of Somoza: "He's a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch." The 1980s brought economic, political and military "Low Intensity Warfare" intended to overthrow the elected Sandinista government. For Nicaraguans, this translated into a total grassroots war that severely stunted all efforts toward national progress.

To be fair, when hostilities ended in 1990 after the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, the U.S. lifted its embargo, restored aid and has since funded many development projects, as have other donor countries. Even so, Nicaragua's economy remains nearly the weakest in this hemisphere -- only Haiti is in worse economic straits.

The on-going poverty of Nicaragua is evidence that the country just can't seem to get a break. Its recent history reads something like a Greek tragedy, featuring a gruesomely cruel dictator who threw his enemies into a volcano, a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake, violent revolution, then a decade of warfare. Hurricanes (Joan in 1988 and Mitch in 1998) dealt the country terrible blows. As bad or worse is the on-going tradition of flamboyantly corrupt government officials finding ever-more creative ways to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens.

There are, of course, enduring scars that only a war can leave behind. When the Sandinistas were fighting the Contras, many areas of the country were mined heavily. After the battles officially ended, the slow killing and maiming of civilians by landmines continued. Now the majority of the landmines are gone, but some still endanger people near the border with Honduras and in other remote regions.

Take a walk in any town in the north, and you will likely see someone -- man, woman or child -- slowly going down the street with the unmistakable gait of a prosthetic leg wearer.

Superman and Wonder Woman Don't Save the Day

When the fighting ended, many organizations rushed in to deactivate landmines and help reduce the number of victims. Sometimes tragic mistakes were made, as in the case of Superman and Wonder Woman. The two superheroes were stars of elaborate, full-color, glossy-paper comic books about landmine safety donated by a U.S. organization to appeal to children. The result? Kids went looking for landmines on purpose, so that Superman or Wonder Woman would swoop in to save them at the last minute, just like in the comic books….

Those who work to educate the public about landmine danger now utilize more credible -- and culturally appropriate -- publications as part of outreach efforts in places where many landmines have not yet been deactivated. People who find an object that appears to be a landmine or other dangerous unexploded object are urged to call the army's landmine hotline.

Uriel Carazo and Leónidas Perez (center) once faced each other on the battlefield. Today, the former Sandinista and Contra work together on a peace project that is trying to bring healing to the worn-torn country. Uriel Carazo and Leónidas Perez represent opposite sides of the same coin. Both are combat veterans who now work to promote peace and development in northern Nicaragua. They are also former enemies.

Uriel started his career with the Sandinista army at age 12, whereas Leónidas served with the Nicaraguan Resistance, as the Contras called themselves. A word about the Contras: many people from the northern countryside who joined the Contras were individuals who had fought alongside the Sandinistas against Somoza, but became angered by the urban-oriented policies of the Sandinista government. During the conflict, these Contras saw themselves as fighting for the liberty of Nicaraguans. The Sandinistas saw themselves as fighting to defend their country and their revolutionary principles in the face of U.S. intervention.

In 1992, Uriel and Leónidas were part of an effort to build relationships between ex-combatants trying to figure out just what they were supposed to do with "peace." A gathering of 600 former wartime adversaries was held in a hotel not far from past battlegrounds. The two men, like almost everyone there, had received disabling injuries during the conflict: Uriel's legs were severely damaged in a landmine explosion, and Leónidas had been hit by shrapnel. Each person there, said Uriel, who serves as the spokesman for the two, came to the meeting with his "vision, ideology and rancor" thoroughly intact and a pistol within easy reach.


"We were like immature boys fighting, and had to be put in separate rooms," he said. "Now it embarrasses us to think about it."

During this first gathering, mere mention of the words "Sandinista" and "Resistance" could bring proceedings to a standstill and create confrontations. The event ended with little in the way of measurable success. More meetings were scheduled, however, and with time and a concerted effort to de-activate psychological and ideological landmines, barriers between some of the participants were broken down.

Said Uriel, "For the first time in a long time, we were working for something and not against someone else." The two sides found common ground in the struggle for rights for people with disabilities. Disabled Sandinista veterans at least had a small pension; the Contra veterans had nothing. Later that year, they participated in a national march to Managua, to raise awareness about prejudice against people with disabilities and to demand pensions for all disabled veterans. The march ended in violence. It was the start of a long, continuing struggle for improved conditions for all people who were damaged as a result of the war, Uriel said.

Since 1993, the two have worked together in a joint commission combining the "Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries" which Uriel heads and the "Association of the Disabled of the Nicaraguan Resistance," lead by Leónidas. The joint organization works to educate people about landmine safety, promote a wide variety of development projects, and generally do the heavy lifting of the long, laborious peace-making process.

"Se hace la paz al andar" (You make peace as you go)

At the end of the day, said Uriel, you have to remember "Se hace la paz al andar," which means, "You make peace as you go." This is a quotation from the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado and the guiding principle of the men's work. (It is also the title of an award-winning article about these men by Argentine journalist Carlos Powell. If you can read Spanish, find it and prepare to be moved by its poignancy.)

The daily routine of Uriel, Leónidas and those who labor with them is usually unglamorous; it may include talking to a classroom about landmines or helping a disabled veteran make his way through jungles of governmental red tape. It is, however, necessary and important work on a long, difficult road away from the war's legacy and toward a genuine peace.

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