In the last 130 years, U.S. troops or U.S.-supported mercenaries have intervened militarily in Nicaragua no less than 16 times--an average of once every eight years.
Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, economic and geopolitical concerns motivated several U.S. administrations to send in the Marines, ultimately declaring Nicaragua a U.S. "protectorate." We imposed eminent domain over a proposed canal route (a British alternate to the Panama Canal), and, in 1914, Washington abolished the nation's sovereignty through imposition of the Chamorro-Bryant Treaty.
Except for a few months, U.S. Marines then occupied Nicaragua from 1912-1933, training and equipping the National Guard to serve as a combined police/military force. This occupation was brought to an end by nationalist leader Augusto Cesar Sandino, whose guerrilla army inflicted serious casualties on the U.S. Marines. Sandino became an international hero. But, shortly after the Marines left, he was assassinated by the National Guard as he left a state dinner for the U.S. ambassador.
The next 50 years of Nicaraguan history were dominated by the dictatorship of the Somoza family, beginning with the elder Anastasio Somoza, a general who fought against Sandino during the guerrilla war and who is widely credited with engineering Sandino's assassination. Seizing control of the National Guard, Somoza declared himself president in 1934. He was assassinated in 1956; power then passed to his elder son, Luis, and after his death in 1967, to the younger son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Nicaragua functioned as Honduras does today. It became a training and staging base for other U.S. actions in Latin America, such as the coup against the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala (1954), the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (1961) and the U.S. Marine invasion of the Dominican Republic (1965).
In 1979, the last Somoza was ousted by a popular revolution led by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), named in honor of the nationalist hero of the 1930s.
The book under review, "Yankee Sandinistas" by Ron Ridenour, suggests some valuable lessons in how to break this tragic pattern of relations between the United States and Nicaragua. It is a collection of interviews with U.S. citizens who have been living and working in Nicaragua, many since before the Sandinista revolution. Among these are a nun, a diesel mechanic, an agronomist and a health-care worker. Through their stories, we can see an alternative to the paradigm of intrusive domination that has typified the U.S. relationship with Nicaragua in the past.
Maria Hamlin de Zuniga, the daughter of Midwestern blue-collar workers, was sent to Nicaragua as a public-health official by the Peace Corps in the mid-'60s, where she worked among the Miskito Indians of the Pacific Coast.
Facing the overwhelming poverty, illiteracy and disease of the region, she became involved with the Christian "Base Communities" of the area, seeking to change the prevailing attitude that this situation was God-given and unchangeable.
But Somoza's government viewed these activities as "subversive," and she was forced to leave the country. After the defeat of Somoza, De Zuniga returned to Nicaragua to continue her work, and for the last six years has been a consultant for the Ministry of Health.
"Now there is a political will," she relates, "to participate and create change for better health, for better lives. We fit into a whole movement of building upon the dignity that the revolution confers on people."
Fred Royce, a diesel mechanic from Jacksonville, Fla., now runs a training school for diesel engine maintenance and repair in a region frequently affected by contra raids. He has lost a number of close friends to these attacks, as well as seen his marriage disintegrate under the many pressures of his work.
Yet there is little of the crusader or martyr in him. People just like him work in factories here in the United States, some of them no doubt manufacturing bullets for contra M-16s aimed right at Fred.
As far back as the Monroe Doctrine, the prevalent U.S. attitudes toward Latin America have been, at best, paternalistic, and, at worst, imperialistic. Ridenour's interviews suggest the kind of productive change that will be necessary if our government and our people wish to preserve peaceful and productive relations with Latin America. And, indeed, among ourselves.