Latin America has had more than its share of civil wars. One of the bloodiest took place in the late 1970s in Nicaragua, a Central American country about the size of New York State.
Nicaragua is not only small but terribly impoverished. Next to Haiti, it is the poorest country in the hemisphere.
The war in Nicaragua lasted one year and when the smoke cleared, in July 1979, the Sandinista rebels had kicked out dictator Anastasio Somoza and crushed his private army, Guardia Nacional, the National Guard.
And so ended a family dynasty that had ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist for more than four decades.
The war was anything but civil. 60,000 people died and hundreds of children were orphaned. Most of these kids ended up on the street fending for themselves. Many avoided reality by sniffing glue. It was a cheap escape.
The plight of these little ones tugged at my heart and so in June 1980, I traveled to hot and muggy Nicaragua to write some newspaper stories and to produce a one-hour radio documentary.
The Canadian ‘hook’ to the assignment was that a Toronto-based foreign development organization had set up some safe houses for street children in Nicaragua.
The project was called Chavalito, which roughly translates to ‘small kid.’
Here’s what lays ahead in this post …
- Combatants in the 1978-79 civil war
- A U.S. television reporter is murdered
- Rebel Augusto Sandino and the FSLN
- The voice of the Sandinistas in Canada
- Susan Meiselas photos of the civil war [graphic]
- Travelling to Nicaragua 
- Contact with the Nicaraguan Consul General in Toronto
- In Nicaragua and meeting Peter Tacon [pronounced: tay-son]
- The war isn’t quite over; tensions remain
- The Chavalito Project [with photos]
- The Contra War
- One-on-one with Peter Tacon
- God’s guerrilla, Father Ernesto Cardenal
- Managua and Pope John Paul II at odds
- Where is everyone now?
- The Author’s return to Nicaragua in 1996
[[[ Caution: this ain’t bedtime reading. ]]]
Let’s begin by going back in time — to 1979 …
That year, all was peaceful in my little world. I was an announcer [DJ] at CKXM, an FM radio station in Edmonton, Alberta. My work day consisted of playing easy-listening music in an air-conditioned studio, recording interviews and producing ‘soft’ documentaries. Harmless, non-threatening stuff.
My girls, five and six years old at the time, were in school and when they weren’t there, they were safe at home or having fun in a playground or camping in the Rockies. Life was good.
But in Nicaragua — a name I struggled at first to pronounce — life was just the opposite. There, it was pure hell. A popular uprising was claiming lives left, right and centre. Mainly left.
Those with a different point of view than dictator Anastasio Somoza were being taken away at gunpoint, blankets covering their heads, never to be seen alive again.
Just about every city, town, and village in Nicaragua saw ferocious fighting. Bullets were flying day and night and heavy bombs were being dropped from government airplanes.
In the last months of the war, ragtag fighters with the Sandinista National Liberation Front [better known by its Spanish acronym, FSLN] had finally gained the upper hand. One city after another fell to the rebels, but only after some nasty street battles.
The tide had turned and the FSLN’s much better-equipped foe, the National Guard, was finally on the run. But not on the major highways. The rebels controlled those.
The two sides would clash one final time — in Managua, the capital. The last stronghold of Somoza and his National Guard was an area surrounding the National Palace, a prominent, sandstone building perched on a small hill in an old part of town.
At a time when the Sandinista rebels had circled Managua, FSLN leaders were holding secret meetings at a ‘safe house’ in neighbouring Costa Rica. They were mapping a final offensive. The rebels were about to capture Managua and overthrow a dictator.
Note the two men wearing blue and black shirts in the centre of this photo …
Around the time of the final FSLN offensive, a trigger-happy National Guardsman would deal his team a fatal blow when he executed an American television reporter with ABC News.
Veteran foreign correspondent Bill Stewart, 37, died on the 20th of June 1979. Stewart was married but had no children.
Stewart’s slaying was captured on film by cameraman Jack Clark, located a safe distance away in a van with the side door open, camera rolling. Clark had no idea his buddy was about to be murdered in cold blood.
The graphic images would outrage television audiences around the world. They also enraged and embarrassed Washington which immediately cut off all aid to Mangua, effectively sealing the fate of the Somoza dictatorship.Here’s what happened that fateful day: Bill Stewart walked up to the front line, just down from the National Palace. He showed a National Guard soldier his press card. The Nicaraguan government had given Stewart his credentials a week earlier.
Bill Stewart was only doing his job. He was trying to get reaction from soldiers who — being on the losing side — were in a foul mood. The previous day, the government newspaper Novedades had published an editorial describing foreign journalists as ‘part of the vast network of communist propaganda.’
One soldier allegedly said of Stewart, “I’m sure he’s no journalist. He’s a dog …”
It was the perfect storm: wrong place, wrong time, wrong job, wrong soldiers, wrong everything …
An officer with the National Guardsman first ordered Stewart to kneel, then to lie face down on the ground. Stewart complied. The soldier then kicked the reporter. And just like that, the officer took his pistol, squeezed the trigger and shot Bill Stewart in the head. The bullet entered above his right ear, killing him instantly.
Clark’s camera was rolling and he captured the whole thing. When Stewart took a bullet to the head, the footage immediately went wild, illustrating just how stunned Clark was.
When the National Guard realized they’d murdered an American journalist, they ordered TV crews to report that a Sandinista sniper was responsible.
Stewart’s film crew then recovered his body.
After the film was smuggled to New York, it was immediately broadcast on the three major American U.S. networks — ABC, NBC and CBS. [CNN and Fox News weren’t around then.]
The reporter’s Nicaraguan translator, 26-year-old Juan Francisco Espinosa, was also murdered — but his shooting wasn’t caught on film. In fact, Espinosa’s death never attracted a lot of media attention. Funny how that happens.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter immediately cut off funding to the Somoza regime. Carter described the murder of Bill Stewart as “an act of barbarism all civilized people condemn.”
Stewart’s execution can be seen here. Warning: this is nasty stuff.
Bill Stewart’s grave is in Ashland, Kentucky.
The soldier who gunned down Stewart was reportedly ‘killed in action’ soon after. Read: He may very well have been executed by angry National Guardsmen who realized their goose was cooked.
In a strange twist, the death of an American reporter likely saved hundreds of lives, perhaps thousands, by speeding up an end to the war.
STEWART NOT ALONE
Murdering journalists in Nicaragua wasn’t anything new.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, publisher of Nicaragua’s leading newspaper, La Prensa, was the chief opponent of the Somoza dictatorship. Chamorro had guts and he put his neck on the line to get his editorials out.
The journalist had spent time behind bars for writing pieces critical of the government.
In a 1975 letter to dictator Anastasio Somoza, Chamorro wrote, “I am waiting with a clear conscience, and a soul at peace, for the blow you are to deliver.” Sure enough. On 10 January 1978, Chamorro was killed by shotgun blasts as he left work.
No one has ever been charged with Chamorro’s murder.
After studying at McGill University in Montreal, Pedro’s son, Carlos, also became a journalist. For a while, he was editor of Barricada, the official newspaper of the FSLN.
On Carlos’ desk is a small plastic vial containing his father’s blood, a reminder that there’s nothing free about free speech.
Care to hear some music from Nicaragua?
Your choice: You can read this post in silence … or be ‘transported’ magically to Nicaragua … with the help of two fine instrumentals from the CD: Nicaragua Presente … Music From Nicaragua Libre. En Sueno, the first tune, is a melancholy number that runs just over three minutes. The second, La Dansa Del Cielo, which is more upbeat, is just under three minutes.
Both are available on iTunes, which is where I snagged them.
The Sandinista movement began in the early 1960s at a respected university in Nicaragua’s former capital, historical Leon, northwest of Managua. The National University of Nicaragua had a reputation as ‘the birthplace of ideas.’
One light bulb moment for the students was that life for the average Nicaraguan would be a heck of a lot better if the Somoza family was shown the door.
The students then formed a political group, naming it ‘Sandinista’ in memory of Augusto Sandino, the popular rebel who fought American troops in Nicaragua in the 1920s and 30s.
Let’s go back to that era. Nicaragua had become another “banana republic” with its president taking his marching orders from Washington. Some called it ‘economic occupation,’ but no one called it right.
Another thing — and it’s no small point — is that the United States could always count on Nicaragua’s vote at the United Nations.
The Marines finally pulled out of Nicaragua in the 1930s, in part because the economy in the U.S. had gone belly-up but also because of the relentless ambushes by a rebel whose trademark was not a rifle … but a wide-brimmed hat.
Augusto Sandino proved to be as deadly with a pen as he was with a gun. Here’s his no-holds-barred message to U.S. marines in 1927 …
“Come, you pack of morphine addicts; come to kill us in our own land, and I will await you standing strong at the head of my patriotic soldiers, not caring about how many of you there are …”
The hit-and-run ambushes of General Sandino gave birth to a new word: guerrilla, Spanish for ‘small war.’On 21 February 1934, Augusto Sandino was invited to a banquet in Managua by dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The two then put their names to a treaty, supposedly to end the fighting. Bury the hatchet, if you will.
It was a trap. The only thing buried that day were the remains of Augusto Sandino, minus his head, allegedly. Right after the banquet, Sandino and some of his followers were taken outside and shot by the National Guard — on the orders of the man who hosted the banquet, Mr. Somoza.
Some claim that Sandino’s head was severed and carted off as a trophy. It’s still not known where his remains were buried.
And here I thought politics in the U.S. and Canada was rough.
ANASTASIO SOMOZA GARCIA
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was once asked why he supported dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia because, well, the guy was a son of a bitch. “Yes,” Roosevelt conceded, “… but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”In September 1956, Anastasio Somoza Garcia himself was gunned down in Leon — by a poet, no less. So much for poets being gentle folk.
Gravely wounded, Nicaragua’s Head of State was rushed to a hospital in the Panama Canal Zone where he died a week later.
The assassinated dictator was replaced by his eldest son, who then passed the reigns to his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. In those days, to have supreme power in Nicaragua meant one had to pass the right test — a DNA test.
As is the custom in most Spanish-speaking countries, the last Somoza dictator had both his parents’ last names, Somoza being his father’s name and DeBayle his mother’s name.
All three Somoza men were educated in the United States.
The Somoza family owned Nicaragua and its people. They ran everything, including the railways which provided free transportation for the goods produced in their factories.
Bottom line: The Somozas and their cronies lived high off the hog while the average Jose lived in abject poverty.
It was a recipe for a revolution.
In the 1950s, an outspoken high school student in Managua expressed the same point of view as the university students in Leon. 16-year-old Pastor Valle-Garay [pronounced: pass-tore / vie-yae / gah-rye] was the son of a wealthy Nicaraguan businessman and landowner. His parents owned a ranch on the edge of Managua, right next door to the sprawling Somoza mansion.
Pastor wrote a series of newspaper articles critical of the dictatorship. Trouble. The teen learned very quickly that, under Somoza rule, freedom of speech was nothing but a figure of speech. One night there was a knock at the Valle Garay door and there stood a high-ranking officer with the National Guard. He had a message for the family: Either you get the hell out of Nicaragua, or we’re killing your son.
The Valle-Garays were soon on a plane to California. Pastor eventually enrolled at San Jose State University where he studied journalism.
In 1974, a childhood friend with the Sandinista rebels contacted Pastor and asked if he would be a spokesman for the FSLN in Canada and the eastern United States. He said sure thing.
Pastor Valle-Garay then went on speaking tours, initially to pay for FSLN trips to the United Nations General Assembly in New York — then to buy weapons for the rebels. He recalls being in San Jose, Costa Rica when word got out that he was in town to purchase arms. Within hours, Valle-Garay recalls, the ‘merchants of death’ came knocking. They were from Russia, United States, Israel, you name it.
The FSLN also got help of course from Cuba which had ‘been-there, done-that’ in the 1950s when Fidel Castro and his rebels overthrew an American-backed dictatorship.
In Canada, Pastor Valle-Gary became the face of the Nicaraguan revolution.
Valle-Garay is best known — not for buying weapons for the FSLN — but for improving the lot of his people by bringing into Nicaragua millions of dollars’ worth of foreign help. It was Valle-Garay, the Nicaraguan Consul General for Canada and a prof at a university in Toronto, who arranged for more than 200 Canadian non-governmental [NGO] aid organizations — including CUSO, Farmers For Peace, Tools for Peace, Save The Children and OXFAM — to work in his war-torn country.
A federal government organization, the Canadian International Development Agency, better known as CIDA, often matched funds raised by the NGO’s. In other words, Canadian taxpayers contributed as well.
Valle-Garay described the generosity of Canadians as “absolutely outstanding.”
The very first Canadian NGO permitted in Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua was Canadian Save The Children. More on that group later.
THE CIVIL WAR: June 1978 – July 1979
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And no one snapped pictures during the Nicaraguan civil war better than Susan Meiselas, a documentary photographer from Baltimore, Maryland.
The Harvard grad put her life on the line to get some extraordinary images for her employer, Magnum Photos — and for us. Thank you, Susan.
Some 70 of her images are in a book called Nicaragua, published by Pantheon Books of New York. If you’d like to snag that book, there’s a link to Amazon right after these photos:
Here’s where you can purchase ‘Nicaragua’ by Susan Meiselas: http://www.amazon.com/Susan-Meiselas-Nicaragua-Claire-Rosenberg/dp/159711071X/ref=la_B000APQH0M_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431925569&sr=1-2.
Meiselas’ website is here: http://www.susanmeiselas.com
HOW I ENDED UP IN NICARAGUA
My connection to Nicaragua began — not in front of a TV watching a reporter get shot in the head — but in the west end of Edmonton, in a recording studio of CKXM Radio, when I interviewed Peter Tacon. The former high school teacher was heading up a group of Canadian volunteers to help street children in Nicaragua.
Tacon was on a cross-Canada tour sponsored by Canadian Save the Children.
The university lecturer was selected for the job by the Nicaraguan Consul General in Toronto, Pastor Valle-Garay. The diplomat had heard nothing but great things about Tacon’s work with the children of Central America, especially in Costa Rica.
Peter Tacon and I hit it off. He was a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy and brutally honest about why dictatorships are overthrown. He talked about political issues — and while I’d heard them all before — I had never fully appreciated the significance of them. Tacon had a great way of explaining things. There was never any sugar-coating.
Case in point, why would a democratic country like the U.S. support a cruel dictatorship? Until I met Tacon, I hadn’t really given it much thought. You can write that off as part of the fog of living in North America; we see what we want to see … and if the truth fits, go with it. If it doesn’t, think about something else.
Although our radio interview was taped, it went to air with little or no editing. It must have been strange for our audience to hear such a ‘radical’ speaker go on about U.S. meddling in the affairs of a small country. That kind of talk wouldn’t bother too many people in Sweden, but in Conservative Alberta … well, those $pon$or$ might feel threatened.
And offended. We can’t have that.My next move was to put in a proposal to my radio station manager, George Duffield, to fly to Managua with a technician and put together a documentary on the work of the Canadian volunteers in Nicaragua.
Our television counterpart, CFRN, was also interested in a series of short news items. The plan was to run the exclusive film clips when our supper-time TV newscast moved from a half-hour to a full one-hour in the fall .
CHARGES D’AFFAIRS – TORONTO
In a week or so, the project was approved and I found myself in Toronto interviewing Pastor Valle-Garay.
Another reason I was in the Centre of the Universe was to get a work visa for Nicaragua.
I found Valle-Garay to be gracious, an excellent communicator and extremely loyal to the Sandinista cause. He spoke from the heart, sharing his pain of how dictator Somoza had screwed both his family and the vast majority of Nicaraguans.
It seemed rather odd that someone from a wealthy family would take the side of the oppressed. I asked Valle-Garay if there was any one incident that had triggered that. He replied there was … he was a kid and sitting in a bus, on his way to a private school when he spotted a barefoot boy, about his age, standing on the sidewalk. That kid wasn’t going to school because his parents — if he had any — couldn’t afford it. The boy looked up at Pastor and for a brief moment, their eyes locked. At this point in his story, the Consul General turned my way and said, “I never forgot the look on his face …”
To help pay the bills, raise a family and fly here and there, Valle-Garay became a professor — a Coordinator of Spanish in the Department of Literatures and Linguistics at York University in Toronto.
He taught at York University for 45 years.When Managua opened its Embassy in Ottawa, Valle-Garay turned down the position of ambassador, opting to remain in Toronto.
MEETING TACON IN NICARAGUA
Larry Arnault and I were met at the airport in Managua by Peter Tacon. Before we climbed inside his Toyota 4X4, he handed some money to several Nicaraguan boys standing alongside his vehicle. I said, “What’s that for?” Tacon winked and said, “They guarded my car.”
How about that? I learned something new: Protecting cars is a money-making scheme of kids in Third-World countries. If you choose not to enlist their services, something just might happen to your tires.
It was my first time in a Third World country and, I admit, I was not at ease. Of course I realize there’s a term for that: ‘Culture shock.’ It’s one thing to watch films on the Third World, it’s another to be there and see things firsthand.The story about abandoned children in Nicaragua, the ouster of dictator Somoza was not only printed by dozens of Canadian Press affiliates, but by an unlikely source: a business newspaper published by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. I’m not making that up.
We dodged some king-size pot holes en route to Tacon’s residence/office in a “Somoza” suburb of Managua. “Christ,” I said, as we rocked back and forth, “these potholes are bloody huge!” Tacon shot back, “Bomb craters.”
“And what’s with all the empty fields downtown?”, I asked. Tacon stopped his vehicle and turned my way. “Well,” he said, in the tone of a teacher giving a history lesson, “before the big earthquake [in 1972], there were all kinds of buildings here and now … ” motioning with his hand, “this is all that’s left.” “In some cases,” he went on, “they bulldozed buildings with bodies still in the rubble.”
Welcome to the Third World.
TENSION, ALWAYS TENSION …
There’s a funny story behind the press-credential shot …
We had arranged for a local photographer to get head shots for our press passes, but within minutes of arriving at the studio, a truck full of uniformed Sandinista soldiers pulled up, dust flying.
The guys hopped off the back of the truck, fully expecting their photos to be taken. However, there was a problem. The photographer had only one 12-shot roll of 35mm film — not enough to do the job. Third World, remember?
Tacon and the officer-in-charge argued over who had priority. While this was going on, a heavy-set soldier plunked himself down in a plastic lawn chair, filling it out, with beads of sweat streaking down his face. He began rocking a machine gun back and forth on his legs and studying Larry and I with a drill sergeant-like glare.
It was clear he was pissed, but why, I have no idea. Perhaps he thought we were Americans. Gringos.
Larry Arnault was a great radio technician, but nervous as hell in situations like this, understandably. It was Larry’s first visit to a Third World country, too, and he wasn’t taking it well. He paced back and forth like an expectant father in a maternity ward with triplets on the way.
To break the tension, I announced, “Okay guys, let fatso here with the machine gun go ahead of us …” Unaware the soldiers understood zero English, Arnault had a shit-fit, calling me over to the side of the building. “Jesus!” he stammered, stomping his feet in the dirt, “You’re going to get us killed!” I said, “Think so? …”
Well, wouldn’t you know? … things worked out just fine.
All that was shot that day were pictures. Larry and I had our mug shots taken, and some of the Sandinista soldiers did as well. As we drove away, I nudged Larry and said, “Check that out …” There was the soldier who was built like a linebacker — the one with the machine gun — smiling and waving.
SCENE OF EXECUTION
Larry had seen the clip of ABC reporter Bill Stewart getting shot, and he couldn’t stop talking about it. One evening, after some drinks at the classy Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Managua, we set out to see the spot where Stewart lost his life. Kind of a pilgrimage, I suppose.
The sun was setting as we walked by the Presidential Palace, down a steep road that led to the former front line.
The lawn of the Presidential Palace was surrounded by a 5-foot high chain-link fence. Some of the fence was busted from the war [troop carriers or tanks]. Just beyond the fence was a Sandinista soldier who was stretched out on the grass. Guess he was guarding the place.
Just as Larry and I walked by — speaking ENGLISH, apparently loud enough to be heard by others — the soldier immediately got up and yelled, “Alto!! Alto!!”
Larry’s eyes darted about, and out of the corner of his mouth came these words: “He’s talking to us!! What does ‘alto’ mean?” I replied, “It means ‘stop’!”
The soldier continued to shout, only now he was aiming his rifle in our direction. That really got Larry’s attention. “God, he’s gonna shoot us!” he whispered. “Fat chance,” I said, “if he’s going to fire, it will be a warning shot over our heads. He won’t shoot us in the back. But you know, I could be wrong …”
No shots were fired. The soldier went back to his siesta on the palace grounds and Larry and I sauntered down to where Stewart lost his life. All was quiet out there, except for the barking of some scrawny dogs. The sun was setting.
We then grabbed something to eat at a McDonald’s — at the time, the only one in the country. The restaurant, run down by our standards, any standards, was only about a block away from where Bill Stewart and his translator were killed.
It was now dark and we wanted to get back to the Intercontinental Hotel, but we sure as hell couldn’t pass by the soldier, the one we had ticked off. We had to walk through a barrio [a slum], and once again we made the mistake of speaking English. Hearing ‘American’ voices prompted one woman, in her mid 20s I reckon, to storm out of her shack and follow us — as in inches behind us — fuming with anger. The woman was beyond livid. She was far more pissed than the lazy soldier.
For the second time in two hours, Larry was freaked. “What’s with her?” he asked, his eyes darting again. I said, “My guess is that she lost relatives and friends during the war, and she figures we’re from the United States.” I again tried to defuse the situation. “Normally, Larry, I don’t mind women who breathe heavy — but not this gal.”
The woman stomped behind us for a good block, huffing and puffing as though she was finishing a marathon. Had she been carrying an assault rifle, Mr. Sound Tech and I would have flown back to Canada in the cargo hold.
It took us more than half an hour but we made it back safely to the Intercontinental. Never has air-conditioning felt so nice and an ice-cold beer go down so well.
Perhaps you’re wondering if it would have made any difference if we’d told the angry lady and the angry soldier that we were Canadians, not Americans. Likely not. Most people I spoke to in Nicaragua hadn’t even heard of Canada. In the minds of many — particularly the uneducated, and that meant most Nicaraguans — we were simply “Gringos.” Gringo may be Spanish for assholes, not sure.
The name chosen for the project was Chavalito, Spanish for small child. The idea was to set up safe houses in major centres throughout Nicaragua where street children could go to escape the violence and the exploitation, a place where they could get proper meals, showers, clean clothing and bedding … and an education.
It was at Peter Tacon’s insistence that these havens be located in the slums, an environment the kids were familiar with — not in a house in a rich suburb.
The project was jointly funded by the Nicaraguan Government and Canadian Save the Children.Our first night on the “rooftop” at Casa Chavalito was somewhat exciting. The power went down, leaving Managua in darkness. At around one in the morning, gunfire broke out close by. As in a house or two away. There was a series of single rifle shots and a lot of yelling followed by machine gun fire and more yelling. “What the hell’s that?” shouted Larry, sitting straight up. I said, “You know, sounds like gunfire to me.” “What do we do?” he pleaded as bullets cut through the night sky. One of Peter Tacon’s adopted sons, sleeping to my left, commented dryly, “Keep your head down.”
“But the war is over,” Larry protested. “Old scores being settled,” muttered Tacon’s son before he rolled over to resume his sleep.
I don’t know if anyone was killed or wounded that night, or if the boys just ran out of ammo … but the skirmish lasted only 30 minutes.
An hour or so later, I got up to have a leak and my sound technician was wide awake, his eyes fixed on the stars overhead. “Larry,” I said, “try to imagine that instead of being in Managua, we’re in downtown DETROIT, there’s gunfire everywhere — but we’re covering a fashion show! Does that work?”
THE CONTRA WAR
When I was in Nicaragua, the Contra rebels — founded and funded by the United States — had just begun their cross-border attacks from Honduras. These terrorists, which some called ‘freedom fighters,’ didn’t care who they knocked off. Not long before we landed in Nicaragua, the Contras had pulled over a vehicle carrying some foreign-aid workers and shot every one of them. The message was: don’t help the current government.
Peter told us the story as we drove the highway to Matagalpa, in northern Nicaragua, but no one objected to going there. We headed out anyway. What the hell.
When people find themselves in a ‘zone of conflict’ it’s often luck of the draw that determines who lands in trouble. I believe the best thing to do is forget about it — or try to — and get on with your day, as if nothing is going to happen, otherwise you’re paralyzed with fear.
The Contra War [attacks by U.S.-financed rebels against people and places in Nicaragua] dragged on for eight years and killed an additional 40,000 Nicaraguans.
In 1996, I travelled to Puerto Cabezas, on the East Coast. On the edge of town, I rummaged through a graveyard of shot-up and bombed-out military equipment. Here were Eastern European-made armoured vehicles and all that. And a lot of helmets. I picked up one and noticed it had a bullet hole in it. The last soldier to wear it had obviously taken a slug to the head. I thought about Nelson Sanchez.
It’s reported the Contras forced captured Sandinista soldiers to dig their own graves before executing them.
More than bullets flew during the Contra war. So did labels. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was quick to label the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua as ‘communist.’ He then placed a U.S. embargo against the new government.
I always found it odd that anyone would label the Sandinistas commies since the Sandinista Government had put three Roman Catholic priests in prominent positions: Minister of Education, Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Culture.
Consul General Pastor Valle-Garay was once asked by CBC TV in Canada if the Sandinistas were ‘communists.’ “In Nicaragua,” he replied, “the entire Communist Party could fit in a Volkswagen. The FSLN was neither a communist organization, nor a lackey of the White House. They were simply Sandinistas rebuilding a nation.”
Over a span of 10 years, an estimated 100,000 Nicaraguans died in the two armed conflicts. That’s a high number when you consider the population of Nicaragua at the time was about 1.5 million.
Note: Because of U.S. financial support and training for the Contras — as well as the deaths of numerous Nicaraguan citizens — in the mid 1980s Nicaragua took the United States of America to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. The Court found the U.S. guilty of state terrorism and ordered Washington to pay Nicaragua reparations of more than 17 billion dollars.
The U.S. never paid a dime.
Part of the Contra assault involved the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours. Some of those mines have yet to be recovered and diffused.A similar civil war raged in El Salvador and Guatemala with many church workers taking the side of the poor — often at great personal risks. Everywhere in Nicaragua, I could see signs that the country had been shot up during the civil war: many buildings had bullet holes while others were simply bombed-out, blackened shells.
Some structures had been spared damage. It was in Leon where Peter Tacon, Larry Arnault, myself and a Nicaraguan government official working with child services were in a restaurant, located in an old, historical building downtown. Leon had seen some heavy fighting during the war — but the restaurant was clean, free of bullet holes … and quiet. Spartan, but nice.
The Nicaraguan government official sported a goatee and had a well-worn, leather attache case which he unbuckled now and then to find papers he wanted to show us.
A menu was passed around, but I couldn’t read it. Remember, my Spanish vocabulary consisted of ‘alto’ and a few cuss words. At the very bottom of the menu was something written in Spanish — a motto I presumed, not sure — and so I asked Tacon what it meant. “It says,” said Tacon, pulling the menu away from him until it was in focus, [I’m paraphrasing here] “You cannot eat here unless you have clean clothes, good manners and good morals.” I shot back, “Well, two out of three ain’t bad.”
I did not meet any of the five members of the ruling Junta, the provisional government set up by the Sandinistas until free elections could be held. That was no accident. The five were constantly on the move to avoid being bumped off by the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency [CIA].
PRIVATE TALKS WITH TACON
Peter Tacon and I had plenty to talk about. We wound down every evening pretty well the same way, sitting around a table … and putting issues out there for discussion. Neither Tacon or I thought our Coke or Pepsi was safe to drink, and so we diluted it with Nicaraguan rum.
Tacon drank way more than me. I just can’t handle a lot of hard liquor.
I found myself being one of Peter’s students, absorbing information no one ever talked about when I went to school in New Brunswick. How reporters see the Third World is not unlike looking through a piece of opaque glass; we can see things — but it’s all distorted. “That’s no accident,” offered Tacon. He warned that, as a journalist, I would be running into many stories where it would be difficult to report the truth. He saw me as naive, and I guess I was.
I pointed out that even though Nicaragua was Third World, it had superb highways. Tacon grinned and said, “That’s because Anastasio Somoza wanted to move his troops around quickly.”
Tacon had his own thoughts about foreign aid and philanthropy. What he had to say reminded me of Martin Luther King, the slain American civil rights leader.
The more Tacon drank, the more he talked about the civil war. Two horror stories, in particular, stood out for him. One had to do with two boys in Leon who had climbed up a church belfry and shouted obscenities to National Guardsmen riding in a jeep below. The soldiers ordered the boys down so they could have a word with them. Trembling, the boys approached. Both kids were shot and killed on the spot. The soldiers drove off, leaving the bodies on the ground.
The other story had to do with how the National Guard reacted when they discovered some high school students were ‘collaborating’ with the enemy [running messages for the Sandinistas]. They brought the entire class to a square in the downtown, told them to stand against a brick wall and machine-gunned to death every student. They then ran over the bodies with troop carriers and burned the remains.
Tacon added, “After the war, the FSLN hunted down those fuckers and killed them.”
I checked with Pastor Valle-Garay on this, pointing out it was my understanding that the Sandinista regime had pledged to do away with the death penalty. “Sorry, Byron,” he said, “what happened to those kids was barbaric. Yes, we shot those guys.” I asked, “Was it true the students were helping the enemy?” Valle-Garay conceded, “Some were but not everyone in the class was doing that.”
Valle-Garay has his own horror stories of the war. One is that the National Guard trained kids how to rip out the eyeballs of Sandinista supporters — using spoons.
Peter Tacon was critical of the news media. He felt reporters were a cheering section for the status quo, whether it was a dictatorship, the military or big industry. I sensed Tacon didn’t have a lot of time for the media.
The man sure didn’t have time for hypocrisy.
I also sensed a heaviness in the guy, as though his shoulders bore the weight of what was wrong with the world. It didn’t bother me one bit that Tacon got hammered now and then.
Speaking of getting hammered, what’s with Pueblito Canada, a foreign development group based in Toronto?? Starting on 25 May 2015, five messages have been left on their phone record system [416.642.5781]; not one call was returned. Maybe the magic number is 10.
It was Peter Tacon who introduced me to Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Trappist monk and poet … and Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture. Cardenal was an interesting character; soft-spoken and thoughtful. He spoke flawless English.
When I shook hands with Cardenal, I could sense he had a special spirit. Put it this way, he was connected to more than the Sandinistas.
Before the Sandinistas took power, Ernesto Cardenal was asked at a fund-raiser in Toronto if money raised to help Nicaraguan teens would actually go to the children. To avoid being killed by the National Guard, the teens were being dropped across the Costa Rican and Honduran border. Cardenal said the money would not go to the kids. “It will go to buy weapons,” he explained, “… to help defeat the National Guard — so our children won’t have to flee to other countries.” Cardenal got a standing ovation.
Ernesto Cardenal remained faithful to the Sandinista cause, never waving. He retired from politics but continues to write poetry. He heads up the International Poetry Festival held every year in Granada, Nicaragua.
THE POPE AND NICARAGUA
Father Cardenal advocated violence to bring about change, and for this reason he and Pope John Paul II never got along.In fact, the Pope never got along with the Sandinistas period. He didn’t like it that several Nicaraguan clergy — Father Cardenal included — were actively involved in a revolution. God forbid.
The Sandinistas pointed out that Pope John Paul II was fundamental in the overthrow of a government in his native Poland. It gets worse. Not only had the Pope turned a blind eye to when the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua was in bed with the Somoza dictatorship, he advised U.S. President Ronald Reagan on how to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Imagine this for a second. The Official Church of the Mob being hypocritical. Not nearly as bad as its coverup of child molestation by scores of priests or cooperating with the Nazis, but still …
The Pope elevated Archbishop Miguel Obando Bravo — the highest-ranking Catholic official in Nicaragua — to the title of Cardinal. Critics say Bravo was rewarded — not for helping the poor — but for being an arch enemy of the Sandinistas. It was Bravo who blessed Somoza’s tanks with ‘holy water.’
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
- ANASTASIO SOMOZA is dead, killed in a bazooka attack in Asuncion, Paraguay on the 17th of September 1980.
Somoza — who was a very wealthy man after he looted Nicaragua — ‘checked out’ the same day our radio documentary on Nicaragua’s abandoned children was broadcast in Edmonton. Timing is everything.
The man whose nickname was Tachito [Spanish for ‘little taco’] died instantly when his armoured Mercedes was blown to smithereens by a bazooka fired by a Sandinista hit squad. ‘Little taco’ was fried to a crisp, identified only by his feet.
Of note to car enthusiasts, the motor on the Benz kept running after the bombing.
General Anastasio Somoza, who graduated from an elite military school in the United States [West Point Military Academy, New York State] was known as the last U.S. marine in Nicaragua. He’d been appointed ‘general’ by his father.
- DANIEL ORTEGA is President of Nicaragua.
Ortega is popular with voters — but some say the man they call the ‘Stalin of the tropics’ has become what he hated: another Somoza. If that is true, he has betrayed the principals of the Sandinistas.
What’s telling is that Daniel’s older brother, Humberto — former FSLN Commander Humberto — has moved to Costa Rica.
Critics point out that during the civil war, Commander Daniel Ortega never fired a shot. I have no idea if this is accurate.
Daniel is reportedly one of the wealthiest men in Latin America, with his four sons controlling the four TV stations in Managua and his wife handling media relations for the government. In any case, she issues prepared statements — but does not answer questions. That’s exactly how a dictatorship would operate.
On 1 June 2015, the major newspapers in Nicaragua reported that Daniel Ortega planned to run for another term — and if elected, his new term would begin in 2016 and end in 2020. Under the constitution brought in by the Sandinistas, more than two terms would not have been permitted. However, Ortega unilaterally amended the constitution [he made his own rules] so that he could run as many times as he wanted.
In August 2016 Ortega announced that his wife, Rosario Murillo, would be his vice-presidential running mate. I’m not making that up. Check it out here:
The irony: if Daniel Ortega is elected for another term, he’ll become Nicaragua’s longest-serving President.When I think of Daniel Ortega, I am reminded of this Nicaraguan proverb:
“Renounce a friend who covers you with his wings and destroys you with his beak.”
- PASTOR VALLE-GARAY, who turned 81 in January 2017, still lives in the Toronto-area.
Valle-Garay has retired from teaching, but he’ll never retire from helping Nicaragua and its people.
In stark contrast to Ortega, the soft-spoken diplomat remained faithful to the Sandinista cause. He continues to fight in the trenches.
Valle-Garay has recently overcome some serious health issues, but his spirit is strong — like that of a 16-year-old who stands up to a powerful dictatorship.
- PETER TACON died from a heart attack in Zaire, Africa in the early 1990s.
Tacon was employed by UNESCO, a U-N organization. He had an office in Geneva, Switzerland.
A number of years after Tacon’s death, I had phone contact with his widow in Washington, D.C. The woman’s name escapes me now, but I do recall she did foreign development work for the United Nations in New York. She shared what their kids were up to — and that she missed Peter terribly. I told her I missed him too.
- Chavalito volunteer Patricia Suksi returned to the Toronto area. Pat went back to university, got her masters degree, then put in a year for her doctorate in Spanish Languages and Literature. There’s another who will never retire. Pat continues to do volunteer work for Third-World agencies.
- Ivonne del Carmen Garcia had a girl — and she named her child after a Canadian woman who’d helped her so much in her greatest hour of need. The child’s name: Patricia.
- Can’t say for certain what happened to NELSON SANCHEZ, the youngster featured in the 1980 Canadian Press story.
I looked for Nelson when I returned to Nicaragua in 1996. Someone heard he’d moved to Ciudad Sandino [Sandino City], on the western edge of Managua. I grabbed a cab and, armed with a Spanish phrase book, began asking questions of people in Ciudad Sandino.
One man who claimed he knew Nelson said he’d joined the Sandinista Army but was killed fighting the Contras. I wasn’t able to confirm that.
- Sound technician LARRY ARNAULT left private radio to work as an operator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC].
Last I heard, Arnault was with CBC Radio in Calgary, Alberta. Oh. And he legally changed his first name to ‘Michael.’ Like, what’s with that?
I also joined the CBC and when I came on board, the technicians — quoting Arnault — said that I almost got him killed in Nicaragua. Larry/Michael, you would have loved it in Daniel’s compound.
Arnault did a bang-up production job on our documentary.
I had mailed a cassette copy of our show to Peter Tacon in Managua. He responded with a telegram [for those whose hair hasn’t greyed, that’s the forerunner of emails] which arrived at CKXM on 29 September 1980. Tacon’s message read: “Magnificent sensitive tasteful artistic powerful convincing superb Nelson and I want to thank you Larry and CKXM personally.”
Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of our radio doc, otherwise, I’d let you hear it. In the early 1980s, I loaned my only recording to the program director at an Edmonton radio station, where I had applied for work. When I got the tape back, I discovered it had been erased. Welcome to the radio business.
- CKXM underwent a name change too, although it’s still at 100.3 on the FM dial. The call letters of Edmonton’s first FM radio station are now CKBR. The format has changed as well. ‘The Bear’ plays only hard rock.
- One final thing: the three pieces I did for CFRN Television were never broadcast, in spite of keen interest by the station’s owner and founder, Dick Rice. Rice, a respected name in Canadian broadcasting, was instrumental in setting up the CTV network.
Michaels and I ended up working in the same office at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Forgot now what the issue was, it may have been the Falklands-Malvinas War, not sure … but I said, “Warren you sure know where your bread is buttered.” “Yes,” he said with a half-smile, “I like lots of bread and lots of butter …” No shit.
RIP Peter Tacon. Oh. And Peter, if any of this stuff about the media and Daniel Ortega surprises you, please send me a sign. And no lightning bolts, please. Thank you.
AUTHOR’S RETURN TO NICARAGUA – 1996
Pardon the mental gymnastics as I fast-forward 16 years here … to 1996. In June of that year, I dropped by Ortega’s heavily-fortified compound in Managua, just around the corner from a big television station. The complex was a fortress — a scattering of small buildings surrounded by a high brick wall topped with turrets manned by soldiers toting rifles and machine guns. And I thought downtown Detroit was rough.
Back in ’96, the Sandinistas were not in power, but they had power. Especially Daniel Ortega. Ortega was in charge of Nicaragua’s military. So, the opposition leader was in charge of the armed forces. Weird, I know. In Nicaragua, it became known as ‘governing from below.’
Before I had arrived, Daniel had seized the property of a wealthy dentist in Managua, turning it into his personal living quarters and office. Security wasn’t super tight, thank goodness. After a pat-down and a check of my equipment, I passed out about a dozen packs of smokes to guards, then met with Daniel’s assistant, a woman whose name I can’t recall. ‘Maria’ sounds about right, but don’t quote me.
Daniel Ortega is not known for speaking to reporters. Even so, I wanted to ask him a number of things, including reports that huge shipments of Columbian cocaine were arriving on Nicaragua’s East Coast, particularly near Bluefields.
Word was, senior government officials in Managua were in on the action and were getting filthy rich from the drug trade.
I’d been warned not to talk about the smuggling of cocaine into Nicaragua because I’d likely pay a steep price. Not sure if that threat was real or not.
A white Mercedes slowly slipped by with Daniel sitting alone in the back seat. The former FSLN commander — the same team member who met in a safe house in Costa Rica in 1979 plotting the final offensive against Somoza — stared straight ahead, avoiding eye-contact. I wasn’t sure if he was arrogant, dis-interested … or like the TV editor in Edmonton.
In spite of three trips to Daniel’s fortress and assurances from his assistant that something would be worked out, there was no interview. The last time I was at his compound, I asked my translator to tell Daniels assistant [in Spanish], “Don’t fuck me around.” At first she refused to say it but I said, “Do it.” So out it came. “No, señor, no, no señor! …” Daniel’s assistant pleaded.
I pointed my finger at her face and said, “You’re fucking me around!” We stormed out, leaving Daniel’s assistant standing alone.
My translator thought for sure we’d get a bullet in the back as we walked away from Ortega’s compound. But nothing happened. No warning shots. Not even an ‘alto.’ No pun intended, but we may have dodged a bullet there.
That night the president of the Sandinista party dropped by our hotel to try to smoothe things out. He was gracious, well-spoken and soon to become Nicaragua’s ambassador to Washington. He said it was good someone told off Daniel’s secretary because, as he put it, they needed to hear that.
It’s interesting that Nicaragua’s largest daily, La Prensa, refers to President Ortega as the ‘unconstitutional’ President of Nicaragua.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD
The world’s a big place but at times it can seem incredibly small.
On Friday, 13 May 2016 I went around to a trophy shop in South Edmonton to have laser engraving work done on some stones. Made two visits to the store. During the second visit, one of the workers walked up to the counter to have a word or two. We shook hands and began to chat. Nothing unusual, you say.
The man flashed a grin that signaled this would be no ordinary meeting.
He introduced himself as Roger Perez. “You have a nice accent,” I pointed out, in an attempt to break the ice, “… where are you from?” “Central America.” “Nicaragua?” “Yes …”
I shared that I’d been to Nicaragua, many years ago now. “I know,” he said. “I met you … in Esteli.” Note: In 1980, Canadian Save the Children ran a Chavalito safe house in Esteli.
Esteli, Nicaragua’s third-largest city, is about two hours’ drive north of Managua. It was a Sandinista stronghold during the civil war and the scene of some fierce street-to-street fighting and aerial bombardments.
Roger recalled that after we met I was off to see a coffee plantation [correct]. He also said I talked about plans to visit Matagalpa [in the north], where the contra rebels were launching attacks from neighbouring Honduras [correct again].
He then remarked, “The Sandinistas liked you, but not so much the Somoza people.” Probably true. Roger went on to say many Nicaraguans didn’t like Dictator Somoza — and that he was one of them.
Like I say, small world.
Has Daniel Ortega put one over on the people of Nicaragua? Has the former FSLN Commander sold out?
What do you think?? Register your vote below …