People come to Dr. John F. Bresette and tell him they are depressed because there are so many terrible things going on in the world and they can't do anything about it. They write checks -- they write a check every year -- but it doesn't help, not really. What can you do, they say, and shrug.
Bresette gives them his quick smile and invites them to Nicaragua.
He and a friend, the Rev. William R. Callahan, a Jesuit priest and fellow Catholic activist, were invited by the Supreme Electoral Council to observe the November elections in Nicaragua. They were already well known there through the work of the Maryland-based Quixote Center, which over the years has sent clinics $2 million in desperately needed medical supplies. At the time Callahan, a director of the center, had been living in Nicaragua for four months, and Bresette, a Washington urologist, had visited there several times to help in the clinics and check on their needs.
They are pretty basic.
"They didn't even have any aspirins," Bresette says. "A country of over 3 million people. We started Project Aspirin and sent 18 million tablets. Also bandages and sunglasses. They use the frames for real glasses."
They needed rubber gloves. Doctors and nurses were dipping their hands in Clorox or Ajax to scrub up. American-built medical machinery was useless for lack of parts. They needed sutures, syringes, scissors, thermometers, gauze, adhesive tape, Band-Aids -- a page-long list of elementary medical supplies. At one hospital, the big sterilizer was broken down, so for eight months everything had to be boiled in pots. At another, the kitchen staff was peeling potatoes with machetes. A complex surgical probe arrived with parts missing, so Bresette dunned his doctor friends to get the parts and brought them down himself.
The Quixote Center buys in bulk ("$1 will buy 300 aspirin . . . $100 will buy 40,000") and works with little overhead. Bresette has long experience in such things: He helped start the Zacchaeus Medical Clinic in 1974, D.C.'s only totally free medical clinic, where he still works about one day every week. Once Bresette sent a letter to 1,800 of his patients in the Washington area and got $4,000 to start a D.C. Committee for Health Rights in Central America.
Just before the election, Bresette and Callahan checked out the distribution system for the center donations. They saw an 18-ton load being unshipped and readied for parceling out to 50 clinics -- all by hand. No forklifts. The unloading team was interested in just one thing: getting Quixote Center T-shirts.
"Health care is a major part of the Sandinista revolution," Bresette says. "Health care was originally 17 percent of the national budget, according to the Nicaraguan government, but defense needs pushed it back to 10 percent. That's still the highest in Central America. But they have so far to go. Their best hospital is comparable to D.C. General 40 years ago. No ramps . . ."
Every time he flies to Nicaragua he brings as much equipment as he can carry. Like a portable EKG machine (with 20 rolls of recording paper) so that heart patients don't have to ride a bus 20 miles and walk another mile just to get a test.
Though many doctors and nurses fled the country in 1979 after the revolution, Nicaragua is racing to train new personnel and set up hundreds of local clinics to augment its ambitious program of free health care. Already the brigadistas de salud, or health cadets, most of them teen-agers from the cities who are posted to villages, have reduced infant diarrhea 80 percent, according to World Health Organization findings, with a simple well-baby program consisting mainly of regular weight monitoring and dietary advice.
There are, by the way, hundreds of foreigners, called "internationalists," living in Nicaragua and working for low wages because, politically, they support the revolution. They have jobs ranging from doctors and foreign ministry officials to coffee pickers and construction laborers.
A cadet program is also used to fight illiteracy. One of the charming and heartwarming sights in Nicaragua today, Bresette says, is that of a 13-year-old girl teaching an elderly woman to read. Some observers, it is true, have found the literacy program, while a laudable and ambitious effort, fairly superficial in its effects so far, with many former illiterates unable to do much more than write their names.
The Bresette family, with nine children from 11 to 25, first became involved with Nicaragua about 15 years ago. The parish priest in Oxon Hill, where they lived at the time, asked the doctor to help him bring the word to a woman that her husband, an Army colonel, had just been killed in Vietnam. The widow had five children, and two of them, 12-year-old twins, gradually became part of the extended Bresette family. Their mother came from a wealthy Nicaraguan family.
After the revolution the twins returned to their native country to live, and some of the Bresette children visited them. In 1983 one daughter spent four months working with the poor there. The senior Bresettes, increasingly nervous about what they were hearing of the Sandinistas -- the conventional American view that the regime is not only Communist but could make Nicaragua, like Cuba, a possible Soviet cat's-paw close to our border -- went to see her. They discovered, as Bresette says, "that the country was not a militaristic communist society, but loving, Christian people," and saw the need for medical help.
Now a familiar figure in Nicaragua, Bresette was invited this fall to be one of 400 election observers from several countries. He was joined by Callahan, who has a doctorate in physics and has worked for NASA. Both men have been active for years in the Catholic resurgence. Callahan has in fact been silenced by the church for founding Priests for Equality, a group that works for sexual equality, counseling for gays and other concerns that the church hierarchy would rather ignore.
As Catholic activists, the two men have little sympathy for the hierarchy's attitude that Nicaragua is run by an atheistic Marxist-Leninist regime and therefore should be condemned out of hand.
"There are four priests in the Nicaraguan government itself," Bresette says. (Recently one of them, the Rev. Fernando Cardenal, the country's minister of education, was dismissed by the Jesuit order but said he was conscience-bound to stay on in his post to exercise "my priestly option for the poor.")
Notes Bresette: "The government is building a new dermatological hospital with a Catholic chapel in it. This is an atheistic country?" He adds, "There are 100 people a month being killed in the fighting there, a third of them civilians. That would be like 9,000 a month if it were America. But the church never comments on this." His figures, he adds, come from the Maryknoll Sisters and other international groups with field staffs in Nicaragua, as well as the government.
Bresette also criticizes the large opposition newspaper La Prensa, which urged people, day after day, to boycott the election (thus giving the impression that the Sandinista party was not truly favored by the people) and never mentioned a party rally of 200,000 people in the streets of Managua 10 blocks from the paper.
"The Sandinista party is much too mixed to be Marxist-Leninist," he says. "It cuts across all classes and economic levels. Landowners and everything. And the opposition is alive and well, holding 36 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, so the situation is hardly what you'd call monolithic. There are three parties to the right of the Sandinistas and three to the left of them. On the left, the Socialists, Communists and Marxist-Leninists each drew about 1 percent of the vote."
A cautionary note: Political observers say the assembly is expected to have little influence in setting policy and that the Sandinista Front's nine-man National Directorate remains the most influential body in running the government. A sizable share of the opposition, these observers point out, is not represented in the National Assembly: Four parties in the umbrella opposition alliance called the Democratic Coordinating Committee, with Arturo Cruz as its presidential candidate, boycotted the elections, charging that the Sandinistas overly restricted their political liberties during the campaign.
The election itself Bresette found remarkably fair, "one of the few in Latin American history where no one was killed." Lines were orderly, ballot boxes were made of wood -- in contrast to the 1982 elections in El Salvador, where the boxes were of Plexiglas -- and the turnout was 75 percent. This in a country, election observers pointed out in their report, where illiteracy has only recently been reduced from 50 to 12 percent according to the government.
Meanwhile, Jack and Kathleen Bresette and their children continue to work close to home as well as in Central America. Soon they hope to build a retreat house on their land in Harpers Ferry where people will be able to recharge themselves physically and spiritually, much as they already do at the Bresette home off Foxhall Road. Sometimes the family holds mass at home, with Father Callahan or another priest officiating.
Almost any evening a visitor there will find the pleasant noisy confusion that is life in a large, happy family: the younger children and their friends, a baby or two, an ad hoc crew organizing a meal (dinner for 20 is nothing), an urgent te te-a -te te in a corner, visitors from Nicaragua, medical workers, people busy with the concerns of our time. Don't tell Jack Bresette there's nothing you can do.