I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past week or so preparing for a presentation to a Luther College class. It’s a political science class about terrorism, what constitutes it, who uses it, what its consequences are. The professor who teaches the class invited me to attend and talk about the experiences of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, during the time of the United States’ illegal war with that country. The opportunity was an interesting one, but it has left me thinking about Nicaragua in the past tense, rather than in the present. Stories of the war and its tragic consequences are difficult to re-live, maybe especially if one is a U.S. citizen trying to make sense of what our country did in Nicaragua. As a result, I have experienced real difficulty in imagining what I should post here when my mind is still stuck in the 80’s and the shameful history of those years.
The drought on possible blog topics continued until this very day as I sat down once more to write. And then the notion hit me: what I have been seeking in the way of a present topic has been in front of me for the entire past week or so as I prepared for the class. Because in very real ways, lest any of us forget, Nicaragua’s past with the U.S. has shaped its present, despite the passage of years.
There are the obvious reminders. Traveling across Nicaragua inevitably confronts one with citizens who were physical victims of the war. The presence of amputees is evident in every community, in numbers that greatly exceed what might be expected in a more normal cross-section of a population. There are cooperatives and associations which include in their names terms like “former combatants” or “ex-military” or “mothers and war victims.” I have even overheard occasional good-natured barbs traded between former adversaries, exchanges that both rekindle the memory of who these people were in the 1980’s and who they have become in this new millennium.
Less obvious direct results of the past are everywhere, as well. The impoverished circumstances of Nicaragua are a result of many factors, but a major contributor was the war and its aftermath. In this second-poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, a majority of its citizens survive on less than $2 per day; the majority of its Indigenous people, making up 5% of the total population, exists on less than $1 per day. Half of the population is either unemployed or underemployed in the formal sector. 40% of its children do not complete primary school; one-third drop out by the third grade. One in three Nicaraguan children are chronically malnourished. It is ranked 129th of 187 countries in the Human Development Index. Such are the latent bombshells of the war.
“It is much easier to begin a war than to end it. And even more difficult to repair the invisible consequences, those stains on the soul that can never be erased.” (Carlos Powell.) Deep within the hearts and memories of Nicaraguans old enough to have experienced the war are the still unanswered and troubling anxieties over what allowed the United States to take such an unwarranted and violent action. While the fighting has been over for decades and the internal reconciliations have healed wounds, there is scar tissue that will never go away. There was never an apology, an acknowledgement of wrong, no specific reparations made, and always in the rhetoric a stated antipathy for Nicaraguans’ rights for full, self-determination according to their own view of the world. Many Nicaraguans live with an ingrained mindset about the U.S., reflected in one young woman’s words from the book, Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy by Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick. She observed:
“The intervention of the U.S. is terrible because many times I think they make war just to get richer, they make war to sell their weapons. In addition, they aren’t thinking of the damage they are doing to so many people. It is terrible to think that in a country like the U.S., for example, the young people who live there don’t know anything about what their own country does in other countries…. That is terrible, because the young people grow up thinking that their country is perfect.” (Coni Perez.) These reflections, too, represent forgotten land mines of the war.
These are the kinds of doubts about U.S. intentionality and purpose which undermine not just hopes for a peaceful coexistence with a world superpower, but hopes for peace anywhere on earth, the “stains on the soul” as referenced above. In my experience, Nicaraguans are quick to embrace their visitors from North America, but wary of the governmental “beast” that represents us. The ill effects of that reality are substantial, lingering and difficult to measure as to their damage. So while I find myself presently in the past, it’s the future that I have in mind as our country extricates itself from two current wars while at the same time engages in saber-rattling as to another. The people of Nicaragua, I’m sure, would ask us to remember the outcomes of their past before engaging in another military initiative that destroys a future….