There is at the head of this great continent a very powerful
country, very rich, very warlike, and capable of anything... the United
States seems destined to plague and torment the continent in the name
The United States cannot, therefore, fail to view with
deep concern any serious threat to stability and constitutional government
in Nicaragua tending toward anarchy and jeopardizing American interests,
especially if such state of affairs is contributed to or brought about
by outside influence or by any foreign power.
Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son
of a bitch.
I believe one inevitable outcome of a rejection of this
aid would be that it would remove all pressure on the Sandinistas to
change. And if no constraints are put on the Sandinistas, I believe the
brutality and abuse they already aim at their own country and their neighbors
may well be magnified a thousandfold.
Four of us “girls” worked as order clerks under the supervision of a very handsome and elegant Chinese-American man about twice our age—by far the kindest boss I’d ever had in my five years of blue- and pink-collared wage-slave jobs.
One of the “girls,” Sonia, was Nicaraguan.Meeting Sonia jogged my memory of the late 1940s pop song “Managua, Nicaragua,” which played on the radio when I was a kid in rural Oklahoma. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, then a favorite band across the flat stretches of North America, recorded the song:
Managua, Nicaragua is a beautiful town
Managua, Nicaragua, what a wonderful spot
With this song my only source of information about Nicaragua, it was little wonder Sonia took it upon herself to reeducate me.
I could not figure out why I didn’t even know where Nicaragua was located. I was good at geography and history and wasn’t ignorant of world politics, having spent a year at Oklahoma University and having been friends with Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians during the 1957 Suez crisis. I even knew about the CIA and its overthrow of Iran’s Premier Mohammad Mossadeq only a few years earlier. African decolonization was in the news, and I had read Vera Micheles Dean’s The Nature of the Non-Western World, an anti-imperialist book. I recently had learned something about Southeast Asia and the Peoples’ Republic of China from the Kennedy–Nixon presidential debates. Thanks to my engineer husband’s co-worker at Bechtel, who was from the Philippines, I had heard all about the U.S. occupation and continued control of his country for the past half-century. I knew—from a Cuban friend at Oklahoma University—every detail about the recent Cuban revolution that overthrew the dictator Batista.
But I was vague about the rest of Spain’s former Latin American empire. I had never even heard of the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panamá (wasn’t that a canal somewhere?). Two decades later, during the Carter/Reagan/Bush decade of fomenting a civil war in Nicaragua and quelling insurgency against dictators in others, national polls revealed that the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens, even highly educated professionals, did not know on what continent or even in what hemisphere Nicaragua was located. Even at the University of California at Berkeley, where there was a significant Sandinista solidarity movement, a poll revealed that more than half the students questioned thought Nicaragua was a country in Africa. I empathized with them, but I feared their/our ignorance.
On my first day of work, Sonia told me that the Nicaraguan population of San Francisco was second only to that of Managua, the Nicaragua’s capital, and that Nicaraguans made up the majority of the Spanish-speaking community of San Francisco. She also told me that Nicaragua was important for more than a pop song and bananas—this was before I’d heard the term “Banana Republics” in reference to the Central American countries, although she assumed I already had. I looked up Nicaragua in my atlas when I got home, too embarrassed to ask Sonia where it was.
Sonia told me a story about a 1920s civil war in Nicaragua provoked by the United States. Augusto César Sandino, a dissident member of the Nicaraguan parliament, formed a guerrilla army to drive out the occupying U.S. Marines, along with the North American companies they were there to protect— Standard Fruit, the banana company; Wrigley’s, the chewing gum company; Pine-Sol; and several companies harvesting sassafras, which was used to make root beer and other products. I knew the products but had no idea where they originated. In retaliation, the Marines bombed villages in the remote northeast of the country where the companies operated. Sandino led a peasant army that eventually triumphed, forcing the Marines and the companies to withdraw. But the game was not over. In 1934, Sandino was assassinated and the Somoza family regime installed.
Only after Sonia had told me quite a lot about Nicaragua and its great beauty—the volcanoes, the inland sea, the beaches, the tropical birds and fruit—did I dream of going there someday. I never saw Sonia again after I left Remington Rand to continue my education at San Francisco State College.
I went on to get my undergraduate degree in history at San Francisco State and then to doctoral work in European history at the University of California, Berkeley. Following three months in México, I moved to UCLA to work on a doctorate in history, specializing in Latin America. Except for the 1954 CIA-organized coup in Guatemala and the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Central America and the Caribbean were rarely discussed, and there were no seminars or courses on the region. The indigenous peoples were called campesinos, peasants.
I barely noticed news of the cataclysmic earthquake that destroyed Managua and took 20,000 Nicaraguan lives just before Christmas in 1972. I would not learn for several years more that the outpouring of relief aid that flowed into Nicaragua was shoveled by Somoza into his private accounts. Beginning in 1978, I did start paying attention to the Nicaraguan revolution that brought the Sandinistas to power and the beginning of the U.S. military and economic campaign to overthrow them, with which I soon became obsessed.
Those of us who had been activists against the Vietnam War thought that perhaps we had seen the end of this kind of military intervention. The mid-1970s had seemed a peculiarly hopeful time. The United States had been forced to abandon the Vietnam War, and the 1960s social and cultural revolution had pressured government officials into responding to demands from women, Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, prisoners, the poor, the disabled, children, and elders. From the United Nations came international human rights agreements that provided the framework for social transformation, and the official worldwide “Decade for Women” and “Decade to Combat Racism” were launched with great fanfare, programs that brought me into international human rights work. President Richard Nixon, who had continued the war in Vietnam for six years, was forced to resign in 1974, and the CIA and FBI were castigated by Congress for spying on U.S. citizens.
In California, where I lived, Jerry Brown was elected governor in 1974 and was reelected in 1978. He appointed Tom Hayden and other New Leftists to government positions, reflecting the credibility that radicals had gained. Brown also appointed four liberal judges to the California Supreme Court, making the Chief Justice a woman, Rose Bird.
In San Francisco, my city, a left-leaning populist, George Moscone, was elected mayor, and Harvey Milk became the first openly gay activist to be elected to the Board of Supervisors. Across the Bay in Oakland, the grassroots infrastructure built by the Black Panther Party brought radical African Americans into local office and helped to elect Ron Dellums, an African American and self-described socialist, to the U.S. Congress.
Nationally, the Democratic Party candidate, Jimmy Carter, was elected president in 1976 and appointed civil rights leader Andrew Young as ambassador to the United Nations. Carter even appointed a human rights specialist, Patricia Derrian, as a State Department special envoy. In lobbying to bring the issue of broken Indian treaties into the United Nations, we found that even though Ambassador Young opposed the idea of our taking the issue to the UN, he treated us with respect, and we made gains. I was tapped to serve on National Endowment for the Humanities panels to recommend funding project proposals.
In Africa, the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau/Cape Verde won their independence. The Southern African armed liberation movements (the African National Congress, Pan-African Congress, and Southwest Africa Peoples Organization), and the Palestine Liberation Organization gained observer status in the United Nations, legitimizing their claims to political leadership and strengthening the claims of other armed national liberation struggles around the world.
The Cold War had not ended by any means, but détente
between the United States and the Soviet Union was policy, and the worldwide
antinuclear movement was huge and fused the cultural and political movements,
including feminists. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and other countercultural
icons mobilized millions of young people to the cause of peace and humanitarianism.
The environmental movement took off: Jane Fonda’s prescient film,
The China Syndrome, followed by an actual meltdown at the Three-Mile
Island nuclear power facility in 1979, strengthened the already large
antinuclear movement and halted the expansion of nuclear-powered energy.
But first appearances are deceptive. The seeds for the counterrevolution that was to follow were being planted. The political space that had been created by the 1960s movements began to contract even before Reagan’s right-wing hardliners assumed power in 1981. Although I was not aware of it at the time, in 1974 when I joined the American Indian Movement, its leadership and grassroots base were already in disarray—co-opted, jailed, killed, exiled, burned out, and wracked by internal conflict, as were the other internal liberation movements. Soon, the Native movement would have to organize not only against repression, but also against ninety-eight proposals in the U.S. Congress to terminate the Native American land base and treaties. To make things worse, the Carter administration’s energy policy included an assault on Native resources in the West as the administration declared the western intermountain area a “national sacrifice zone,” free for open-pit and surface coal and uranium mining.
In San Francisco, two bizarre cults dominated the news and formed a sort of parody—a tragic parody—of the former mass movements, a kind of hideous coda for the end of an era. One was the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a tiny cult led by an African American man, Cinque, an alcoholic ex-con who mesmerized a dozen or so inexperienced young women and men. Armed with weapons and a cartoon version of leftist demands, their first act was to assassinate Dr. Marcus Foster, the reformist African American superintendent of the Oakland’s school system. Soon after they gained notoriety by kidnapping nineteen-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
A parallel cult was much larger and more mainstream, but no less insidious. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple attracted thousands, a majority of them African Americans. Jones employed the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-imperialism. No demonstration was complete without the arrival of busloads of enthusiastic troops from Peoples Temple, Reverend Jones himself often the main speaker. Liberal politicians—local, political, and national—courted favor with the Reverend. Foundation and private donor funds poured in to support his experimental farm in the jungles of Guyana. In 1978, when suspicions arose about the informed consent of the participants, Jones led the entire community into mass suicide, with bullets to the heads of those who resisted drinking the poison-laced Kool-Aid.
The collapse of the mass movement that became apparent in the late 1970s cannot be attributed solely to government policies and repression, although the assassination and imprisonment of consensus-building leaders, the discrediting and cooptation of activists, and the fear and paranoia generated by COINTELPRO—the FBI program to “neutralize” antiwar and liberation leaders—took its toll. The winding down of the Vietnam War and the end of military conscription removed the galvanizing focus that had previously managed to unite disparate groups and interests in a common cause. The movement’s failure to establish long-term, broad-based coalitions became visible, and many individuals and groups were left floundering, turning to New Age lifestyles or back to mainstream electoral politics. Many returned to complete doctoral or law degrees, as I did, becoming activist academics. Some turned to drugs or alcohol. Unlike the 1930s popular front, anchored by a well-organized Communist Party (which although still active even in the 1980s, was no longer credible enough to lead a mass movement or to go far beyond New Deal–style electoral politics), no such hegemonic leadership emerged during the Vietnam War years. Activists recognized this weakness at the time, and many of us made great efforts to re-form the existing left parties or to form new political parties, spawning dozens of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and Trotskyist groups, none of which were able to meet the challenge.
Solidarity with liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America formed part of the content of the new-party organizations, but also separately as many U.S. activists formed anti-imperialist solidarity groups that supported national liberation movements in Central America, southern Africa, the Philippines, Palestine, East Timor, Western Sahara, and other areas where the United States was intervening or supplying weapons to crush those movements. The environmental movement surged, but became a ritual of civil disobedience and mass arrests in relatively remote locales, requiring the presence of celebrities and widespread media coverage.
The 1960s women’s liberation movement that I had
been involved in was linked to antiracism and anti-imperialism, but that
strand did not survive either, as issue-orientation emerged outside a
radical political analysis of capitalism, imperialism, and racism. As
male violence against women skyrocketed, a focus on rape and pornography
developed alongside the already existing issues of reproductive rights
and the Equal Rights Amendment, leading to legislative campaigns and
Reagan rode to victory on a wave of super-patriotism and
Islamaphobia that had been drummed up when Iranian revolutionaries seized
U.S. hostages from the embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held them through
the end of Carter's term of office. Reagan’s men geared up to implement
his campaign promise to overthrow the successful revolutions in Angola,
Mozambique, Afghanistan, Grenada, Cuba, and in Nicaragua, and aimed to
prevent those in Guatemala, El Salvador, and other countries from occurring.
The Reagan administration gave the green light to Israel to invade Lebanon,
already wracked by years of civil war, to drive out the Arafat and the
Palestine Liberation Organization. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the
first of the fanatical and violent Islamist organizations that replaced
crushed secularist movements, assassinated Egyptian president Sadat;
all over the Middle East, and soon in South Asia, reactionary Islamism
gained adherents, just as violent Zionists did in Israel and Christian
fundamentalists did in the United States. And John Paul II assumed the
papacy intent on reversing the two decades of growing liberation theology
that emerged from Vatican II.
And it was in that jumble that the Sandinista Revolution, which had triumphed on July 19, 1979, became a prime target.
Nicaragua under the Somozas had been a reliable U.S. ally, but slipped through its grasp as the greediness and ghoulishness of Anastasio Somoza turned pathological and became a gross liability to the United States. A typical drill of Somoza’s infamous National Guard:
“Who is the Guardia?”
The Somoza regime collapsed in July 1979 when the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN is its acronym in Spanish) surrounded Managua, and President Carter advised Somoza to resign and leave, as he had done with the Shah of Iran the year before. Somoza’s one-man rule had not left much of a state, Somoza having driven the country into hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, which the Carter administration forced the Sandinistas to assume, crippling the possibility of improving people’s lives. The Sandinistas, however, set about nation-building, stoked by enthusiasm and the ambition to eradicate poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and to introduce poetry writing to every woman, man, and child.
The larger story of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua during the Reagan era is documented and well-told in Holly Sklar’s 1988 book, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (South End Press). Sara Diamond documented the consolidation of the right wing and its role in the Contra War in Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989) and Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (Guilford Press, 1995). Two excellent books tell the story of the development and rule of the FSLN: Matilde Zimmermann’s Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Duke University Press, 2000) and Gioconda Belli’s The Country under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War (Knopf, 2002). My story focuses on a part of that history, an eyewitness account of how the Mískitu people of northeastern Nicaragua were used by the United States as tools in its war against the Sandinistas. For theoretical, scholarly studies of the Mískitu, see my Miskito Indians of Nicaragua (Minority Rights Group, London, 1988), Carlos M. Vilas, State, Class, and Ethnicity in Nicaragua: Capitalist Modernization and Revolutionary Change on the Atlantic Coast (Rienner, 1989, and Baron Pineda’s Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on the Mosquito Coast (Rutgers University Press, 2006).
Nicaragua is a Central American country sandwiched between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, with the Pacific Ocean forming its western border, and the Caribbean Sea the eastern border. The country’s capital, Managua, is located in the west, near the Pacific. The region where most of my story takes place is in the northeast. Running 100 miles along the Honduran border from central Nicaragua to the Caribbean, it extends southward down about 150 miles of Caribbean coastline—about 70,000 square miles of territory in all. The entire eastern half of Nicaragua was called the “Mosquito Coast” or “Atlantic Coast” by the British empire that claimed the territory, and was renamed Zelaya when it became a department of Nicaragua in 1892. But it remained an enclave of Anglo-American imperialism in the Caribbean. Webbed with rivers and rapids, travel in the 1980s was still by dugout with few roads and no paved ones, no telephones or electricity. This is the home of two distinct indigenous peoples: tens of thousands of Mískitus and thousands of Sumus (there are a few hundred of Rama Indians in the southern part of the region). There is a large number of Creoles, mostly in the southern half, but also a sizeable community in the main town of the north, Puerto Cabezas"Creole" is the self-identification of Afro-Caribbeans in Nicaragua. There are also two Garífuno towns near Bluefields, the southernmost habitation of Garífunos in the eastern Caribbean, the majority of whom live in Honduras and Belize. Tens of thousands of mostly poor Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans migrated to the northeastern zone during the era of the Somozas, 1934 to 1979, seizing traditional Mískitu and Sumu Indian lands and waterways.
Following the Sandinista victory in 1979, the Mískitu, Sumu, and Rama indigenous peoples formed MISURASATA and demanded Sandinista acknowledgement and support for self-determination, starting with including the indigenous languages in the popular literacy campaign. These indigenous communities were well aware of the international indigenous movement making such demands. The Sandinistas agreed to the literacy program in the indigenous languages (as well as English for the Creoles), but balked at the political and economic self-determination demanded especially by the Mískitus. The Sandinistas were overwhelmingly Spanish speaking and from the western half of Nicaragua. They were leftist nationalists who embodied the Latin American tunnel vision of anti- (United States) imperialism and anticapitalism and felt threatened by indigenous demands. Eventually the Sandinistas did realize that their revolutionary dogma contained an element of racism in its nationalism, but by then it was too late because the Reagan administration was there to exploit their mistakes.
As avowed Marxists, friendly to Cuba and other socialist regimes, the Sandinistas were perceived, even by the Carter administration of 1977 to 1981, as a movement that the United States could not and would not tolerate. Consequently, the CIA dusted off the war game that had been known, to the extent it was known at the time, as “the secret war in Laos,” brewed during the Kennedy administration, a program that used the disaffected Hmoung indigenous communities against socialist and nationalist Laos. Even the same old Laos hands were shaken from slumbering retirement to train a new secret army of Mískitus. We anti-interventionists had access to the vast knowledge and experience of former and now dissident CIA officers Phil Agee, John Stockwell, and Ralph McGehee, the latter having actually designed the Laos plan and worked on the ground with the Hmoung. The Hmoung people had been organized into a CIA proxy army, and then dumped after their usefulness ended. Many had to flee the country, ending up as “boat people.” I predicted that the United States would do the same with its Nicaraguan indigenous proxies. I cared about the survival of the Sandinista revolution, but cared equally, if not more, for the liberation and self-determination of the indigenous peoples. I knew that an alliance with United States Contra counterinsurgency would backfire on any group that entered into it. I also believed that the Sandinistas could transform themselves into leaders in Latin America promoting the self-determination of the native peoples. Without U.S. intervention, I think they would have achieved that goal they set for themselves in 1981.
As I became increasingly active in exposing the U.S. program, I myself became a target of the anti-Sandinista project. The U.S. government’s propaganda machine took enough notice of my work to try to discredit me—spreading rumors about me alternatively as a KGB agent, a Sandinista security agent, a Cuban agent, or a FBI or CIA agent, depending on the constituency the disinformation was designed to address. Nor did they stop with propaganda. At one point, I was detained and threatened by the Honduran military in the Honduran/Nicaraguan border zone, which resulted in my exclusion from the Mískitu refugee camps.
I had published four scholarly books on Native American history and issues between 1977 and 1980. During that same time, I was doing non-governmental lobbying at the United Nations for indigenous peoples rights, and in 1980, I moved to New York and began research for a fifth book, Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determinations, which was published in 1984. But, I spent almost every waking moment from 1981 to 1988 either in Central America or on the situation there. At the end of that time, I had lost confidence in academia and scholarly writing, and, I began a historical novel on the Contra War and the Mískitus. This was a mind-spinning time for me—the U.S. invaded Panamá, the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the Berlin Wall was torn down, Chinese authorities brutally cracked down on protestors in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Soviet Union and surrounding socialist states dissolved, apartheid was annulled and Mandela released; in the same period, I experienced personal crises that involved alcoholism, despair, and life-threatening bronchial asthma—fallout from the overwork and attacks I had experienced in the preceding years. I shelved the novel.
I turned instead, in 1992, to writing historical/literary memoir. In 1997, I published Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso), which took my story from my childhood up to the year 1960. I followed Red Dirt in 2002 with Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–75. Now this book, the sequel to those two.
I have a doctorate in history, and I understand the importance and methodologies of discovering and writing history, including oral history. That professionalism is not as important to my writing as is my rural upbringing among storytellers and the time I've spent with the traditional storytellers--actually the historians--of the Native communities with whom I have had the good fortune to know over three decades. I think we are becoming increasingly aware that History itself is an issue, often the issue: Who owns the history of the United States? Do we accept the history of the Latino/Anglo conquerors or the indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere? Whose version of history is valid in Palestine/Israel, in Northern Ireland, in Cyprus, in Kashmir, in Afghanistan, in Sri Lanka, and in hundreds of other situations?
This book alternatively could be called “Living—and
Dying—under Reagan’s America,” or “Site(s) of
Shame.” The particular site of shame in this book is the northeastern
region of Nicaragua, a war zone in the U.S.-sponsored Contra war. Although
Nicaragua (and Central America in general) was a Reagan-era sideshow
to that more important Cold War site of shame, Afghanistan, the Central
American civil wars resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed,
with the United States, as usual, propping up oligarchies by building
and financing a war machine against insurgent poor.
Along the way, "the personal is political" was lost in the mass media and dissolved into "truth is in the eye of the beholder" and "everything is equal and relative."
But, I had learned, not only the power of storytelling,
but also the power of memoir through reading the memoirs of the most
influential political figures in my own political development: Emma Goldman,
Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Agnes Smedley, Simone de Beauvoir,
Oscar Ameringer, Malcolm X, Ché Guevara, Bobbi Lee (Lee Maracle),
Angela Davis, Rigoberta Menchú, and dozens of others, including
those renegade CIA officers Agee, Stockwell, and McGehee.