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Defying Washington : Private U.S. Aid--Boon to Sandinistas

September 02, 1985|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

JALAPA, Nicaragua — Along the dirt streets of this war-weary town near the Honduran border, a new preschool is going up, newly installed chlorinators will soon treat the community's well water, and studies are under way for a sanitary sewer system. In a town just to the south, a primary school is under construction.

All of these projects have two things in common: They have thus far escaped the violence of the war waged on Nicaragua by American-backed rebels or contras --and they are all the work of Americans.

More important, they are signs of a virtually unnoticed but massive flow of aid to Nicaragua from U.S. citizens--materials, labor, money, health care and educational and technical assistance worth at least $24.8 million thus far.

For even as President Reagan declares the Sandinista government a threat to U.S. security, citizen efforts are growing across the United States to help those the Sandinistas govern.

Pragmatism, Defiance

Those efforts are part pragmatism, part humanitarianism and part a brassy defiance of official U.S. policy intended to undo the toll of war exacted with U.S. support.

"Obviously, what we're doing is in direct contradiction of the policies of the Administration, which is sponsoring the destruction of clinics like this," Bryan Rudnavaara, 35, a New York construction worker, said as he looked over a $45,000 health clinic being built by Vecino, a Boston group, in the Nicaraguan town of Esteli. "The contras burned a health clinic last month near Miraflor. We're trying to make up for that."

"It's better to educate these people than to shoot at them," said Larry Calvin, 51, a Sitka, Alaska, businessman, by way of explaining the $2,000 he has given for the school just south of Jalapa in Tastasli. "It's better to help than shoot. I have three sons, and there's no way I want my sons down there trying to kill people for trying to better themselves. They are very, very desperate for education."

'They Have a Right'

Joel Edelstein, board member of the Boulder (Colo.)-Jalapa Friendship City Project, which is building the preschool here, said Americans helping Nicaraguans "share a view that rejects military solutions except in the ultimate danger to national security. Nicaragua will make mistakes. They have a right to. But we think they have a right to run their country."

The flow of support to Nicaragua compares to an estimated $15 million to $25 million contributed to the contras by private U.S. sources since Congress ended covert military aid to them last year. In June, urged on by the Administration, Congress voted to provide $27 million in non-combat support to the contras.

Official reaction to the private efforts to improve the lives of those on the other side of the struggle is guarded.

"The U.S. government has not taken a position against groups that provide what is called humanitarian aid," John Blacken, deputy coordinator for the State Department's office of public diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, said. "The kind of help they're providing cannot be opposed."

But Blacken added, "The general feeling is that many groups are pro-Sandinista . . . and, whether they know it or not, they are supporting a Marxist-Leninist government. I think the Sandinistas have learned how to manipulate groups very well."

There are more than 200 local and national organizations seeking to help Nicaragua, and at least $23.1 million in collective aid has been funneled into the country by or through 31 major U.S. organizations since the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, according to aid estimates provided by the groups.

Free-Lance Volunteers

At least another $1.7 million more in services has also been provided, ranging from the volunteer cotton and coffee pickers from a group called the Nicaragua Exchange in New York to the $500,000 worth of free professional help supplied by TechNICA in Santa Monica. In addition, individuals like Calvin have sent money and materials outside of organized efforts, and additional free-lance volunteers have simply come to Nicaragua to help of their own accord.

This relief effort has grown rapidly in recent months and is expected to intensify as additional groups become active. A major fund-raising effort is under way by a New York group to fund a $500,000 cancer treatment facility in Managua, for example, and in November, Topanga-based Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua will begin construction of 50 single family homes in Pancasan, at a cost of $50,000.

Mark Left by Contras

The private foreign aid effort to help Nicaragua has drawn in city councils, the state of Minnesota, professional groups, religious groups and individuals. And the fruits of their assistance are as visible as the damaged bridges, the destroyed health centers and the burned warehouses left by the contras. Some examples:

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