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American Finds New Purpose in Nicaragua

February 19, 1987|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

MANAGUA — Three years ago, Lisa Rosenthal was an aerobics instructor in Tarzana. Today Rosenthal, 30, is a farm-union worker in Nicaragua.

The Van Nuys High graduate is one of hundreds of Americans who have chosen to live and work in the Central American country. The Nicaragua Network, a Washington-based umbrella organization that represents more than 250 groups helping Nicaragua, estimates 800 to 1,000 Americans have made a long-term commitment to work there.

Rosenthal first visited Nicaragua with a group of artists three years ago. She left behind dance students and a successful aerobics studio, The Limber Yard in Tarzana, for what was to be simply a two-week trip.

Her purpose was to see what life was like in Nicaragua since the 1979 revolution. Rosenthal's interest in the country had been sparked by political science classes she had taken at Valley College.

Charismatic Leader

The catalyst for her dramatic transition from aerobics instructor to union worker was a charismatic leader named Daniel Nunez.

Nunez, Rosenthal said, had been a successful farmer during the years of the Somoza regime, before the revolution. He fought with the guerrillas and, after the revolution, gave all his land to the peasants. Today he leads the union of the Nicaraguan farmers, cattle and coffee growers (UNAG), an organization with 130,000 members.

"He was a mesmerizing speaker," she said, sitting on the cool patio of a comfortable, upper-middle-class home she shares with other "internationalists" (as the Nicaraguans call the many foreigners who have come to rebuild their country). "And suddenly I decided that I had to get him to the U.S. to speak to our farmers. I had absolutely no idea how to do it."

Returning home at the end of the two-week trip, Rosenthal began working on her project. In March, 1984, she brought Nunez to America. She set up speaking engagements from California's Central Valley to the nation's East Coast, and Nunez spoke to U.S. farmers about the existence of private enterprise in Nicaragua and cooperative farming efforts there. Nunez hoped such a visit would encourage farmer exchanges.

Pleased with his reception and Rosenthal's organizational skills, Nunez invited her to return to Nicaragua and work in the international relations section of UNAG for a salary that is, according to her, less than $100 a month.

"I came back in May, 1984, with two suitcases," said Rosenthal. "I wore high-heeled shoes because Daniel had warned me about dressing too much like a hippie. I still spoke no Spanish. It was a very difficult time."

She went directly to Matagalpa, a small town in the war zone and the heart of Nicaragua's major agricultural region. "Nothing was ready. I had to really struggle."

During the six months she spent in Matagalpa, Rosenthal hitchhiked "with pigs and chickens, lived in a small room the size of a cot and shared a bedroom with nine men." She finally learned Spanish and honed her farming skills. "I can even drive a tractor," she said.

Worlds Apart

The life style is very different in Nicaragua than the one she was used to. Rosenthal said she must stand in line for food and do without water when the water supply is turned off in Managua two days each week. But she hasn't given up her California-casual clothes or thoughtfully applied makeup.

In fact, when Rosenthal's parents send care packages from their Sherman Oaks home, "My father sends me books and classical music tapes and my mother sends makeup," she says.

Bernie Rosenthal, a court reporter, and his wife Marcia visited their daughter in Nicaragua in 1985. "We are always concerned for her safety," said Marcia, "but also very proud. More so since our trip there."

Back in Managua, Rosenthal went to work arranging for delegations of Nicaraguan farmers to visit the United States. She arranged for a delegation of farmers who had met Nunez on his U.S. trip to visit Nicaragua. These farmers had lost their farms, or were on the verge of losing them.

"These displaced farmers have had a hard time being united, and here they see how Nicaraguan farmers can be strong with one voice," she said. "The Nicaraguan farmers are learning about U.S. farming methods. When they are allowed to farm, U.S. farmers are the best in the world."

Joint Farming Project

Rosenthal is now working on a project in which 20,000 acres of Nicaraguan farmland owned by the union will leased for free to displaced U.S. and Canadian farmers who will work the land cooperatively with Nicaraguan farmers. U.S. and Canadian farmers will share in decision-making about the land as well as the profits.

"We're starting with a pilot project, a dairy farm on 1,200 acres of land. Five U.S. farm families and five Nicaraguan families will work it together. We are now interviewing U.S. farmers, and there is no shortage of applicants."

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