The Sandinista Government of National Reconstruction was installed four years ago, on July 19, 1979. Three days later, I arrived in Nicaragua in a Flying Tigers DC-8 stretch jet loaded with food--the first of many such flights --to take charge of U.S. assistance programs, the most tangible evidence of our commitment to build a new relationship with Nicaragua.
I left Nicaragua two years later, on July 1, 1981. During those two years, the U.S. government was the most important source of food aid and one of the most important sources of financial aid to revolutionary Nicaragua. We provided assistance valued at $120 million, including 100,000 tons of food. We had tried very hard to build that new relationship. But the effort failed, principally, I believe, because the Sandinistas could not live with a positive image of the U.S. government. They did not try at all. And many in the United States cheered them on.
Within a few months of the installation of the Government of National Reconstruction, an article appeared in the Sandinista newspaper Barricada announcing the imminent arrival of 600 Cuban teachers. I called on the minister of education, with whom I had been working to reactivate an old school construction loan, to express concern that so large a number of Cuban teachers would be interpreted in the United States as a Cuban takeover of the Nicaraguan education system. The minister replied that the government would welcome qualified teachers from any country.
I told him that the United States would certainly be interested in sending teachers, possibly through the Peace Corps. He responded, somewhat apologetically, "You know, we Latin Americans have a view of the Peace Corps which would make it an inappropriate vehicle." (He meant, "We Latin Americans of the Left." What he had in mind was symbolized by the movie "Blood of the Condor," which depicts Aryan- looking Peace Corps volunteers engaging in genocidal sterilization programs in Bolivia.)
At the end of 1979, as a result of the intervention of then junta member Alfonso Robelo (who is now allied with ex-Sandinista Eden Pastora's guerrilla movement), we received Sandinista approval in principle to start a Peace Corps program. After a lengthy study, the Peace Corps sent in a husband-wife team as co-directors. Both were experienced in Latin America, altruistic and totally committed to building a new relationship with Nicaragua. After six months of being fobbed off by the Sandinistas, they left. Not one Peace Corps volunteer was accepted.
We often expressed our concern to Sandinista officials about the line in the Sandinista anthem, "We shall fight against the Yankee, enemy of humanity." In November 1979, Jaime Wheelock, one of the most influential comandantes and a person with whom I sustained a very frank dialogue throughout my two years in Managua, told me that the word "poverty" was going to be substituted for "the Yankee." Soon thereafter, I was told the same thing by then economic czar (and Stanford MBA) Alfredo Cesar, who has since defected. The change was never made.
At about the same time, a U.S. congressional delegation, led by Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), visited Managua at Ambassador Larry Pezzullo's initiative. Fascell was extremely effective, as were his colleagues, Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Matthew McHugh (D-N.Y.) and David Obey (D-Wis.). They pressed hard on the issues of political pluralism and nonalignment in very intense meetings with both the junta, which was increasingly becoming a figurehead, and the Sandinista National Directorate, which is where the real power resides. The congressional group was particularly forceful on the question of elections. In each session they were told that national reconstruction had to be the first priority but that the Sandinistas were committed to elections.
When Alfonso Robelo resigned from the junta in April 1980 and went into opposition, he was promptly labeled a traitor by the Sandinistas. In a conversation with Jaime Wheelock, I tried to explain our concept of dissent. I got nowhere--there is no Spanish word that accurately captures the nuances of "dissent." A day or two later I experienced similar frustration in a conversation about dissent with a young U.S.-trained cabinet minister who had on his desk a bottle of Cuban rum and a copy of "Das Kapital." At one point, he suddenly beamed and said, in English, "Now I know what you're talking about--civil disobedience!"
He has since defected.
A few months later, Larry Pezzullo and I were in Washington to lobby in Congress for the much- delayed $75 million special appropriation for Nicaragua. The Sandinista minister of health, with whom I was working on several programs, was also in Washington, and we had dinner together. During the conversation I complained about inaccuracies and distortions in Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper, and El Nuevo Diario, which closely followed the Sandinista line. Both sounded very much like Cuba's official newspaper, Granma, particularly in their treatment of the United States. The minister's response: "You don't understand revolutionary truth. What is true is what serves the ends of the revolution."
The August 1980 ceremony to celebrate completion of the literacy campaign was a chilling experience. I had been invited to sit with the comandantes and the cabinet because AID had contributed food and some vehicles to the campaign. The ambassador sat in nearby stands with the diplomatic corps.
The Plaza of the Revolution was mobbed with kids in uniform shouting slogans in response to the urgings of leaders on the platform. I was reminded of films I had seen of Nuremberg in the 1930s.
Comandante Humberto Ortega gave the principal address. In the midst of a series of attacks on the United States, he announced that elections would not be held until 1985, thereby reneging on a commitment to opposition groups for early elections. Moreover, he assured his audience, the elections of 1985 would be nothing like the corrupted elections held in the United States. Larry Pezzullo and I both walked out.
My youngest daughter, Amy, then 16 years old, worked during the summer of 1980 as a volunteer with a Nicaraguan organization, Genesis II, which promoted breast-feeding and provided help to orphanages. The head of the organization was Geraldine Macias, a former American Maryknoll nun married to Edgard Macias, vice minister of labor. At the end of the summer (shortly after the completion of the literacy campaign), we had a get- together at our house for Amy and her co-workers. The evening was a little strained because some of the Genesis II people were totally committed to the Sandinista cause and doubtless felt uncomfortable being in the USAID director's house. The Maciases may have felt that way.
Two years later, after the Sandinista security police threatened his life, Edgard sought asylum in the Venezuelan embassy. The Maciases and their children arrived in Washington soon thereafter. They were treated as lepers by many left- leaning church people in the Washington area who had formerly been their friends. The Maciases have found it very difficult to get work and have been living on a shoestring ever since.
In a recent letter to friends, they said:
"Since leaving Nicaragua we have had access to documentation of (the Sandinistas) and some of (their) former members that proves beyond a doubt that their plans from 1979 on were to deny political and religious freedom. Documents that also show how their methods resemble Somoza to the point they appear as a mirror image: rapes, torture, disappearances, murders, threats, and control of unions and community groups through the formation of their 'elite' political party."
During the last part of 1980, the Partners of the Americas program between the state of Wisconsin and Nicaragua, which had endured for some 15 years, ran into trouble. Most of the activities were focused on the Atlantic Coast. Among other problems, the Sandinistas attempted to take over the Partners' educational radio station (they subsequently did take it over); two Wisconsin plastic surgeons were harassed during a visit to Puerto Cabezas, where they did some highly complicated surgery free; and the Sandinistas circulated the word that Partners personnel were CIA agents.
The ambassador sent a letter to the junta expressing his concern, and I called on the comandante responsible for the Atlantic Coast. After I ran down the litany of problems, the comandante said, "You have to understand, Mr. Harrison, that Americans are not very popular in this country." I replied that I had lived in Nicaragua for 18 months, traveled extensively, and had the impression that, notwithstanding Sandinista efforts to paint us as devils, most Nicaraguans liked Americans. I added that this seemed to be particularly true on the Atlantic Coast.
He paused for a few moments, then broke into a broad grin and said, "You're right."
Norma Pineda, an accountant, was the senior Nicaraguan employee of the USAID mission, an admirable professional and human being. Her husband, Byron, had been a lieutenant colonel in a noncombatant unit of the National Guard. Just prior to their triumphal entry into Managua, the Sandinistas announced that National Guard members who had committed no crimes had nothing to fear. Despite the pleadings of family and friends to seek asylum in a nearby embassy, Byron Pineda chose to stay in his house because, as he told his wife, "I have done nothing wrong."
About two weeks after the installation of the Sandinista government, Pineda was arrested and much of his property was confiscated. He was tried some six months later and sentenced to 11 years in jail. As in thousands of others cases, all that was proven by the prosecution was that he had been a member of the National Guard.
A few months later, the Sandinistas told Pineda that he would be freed if his wife would provide information on USAID activities to the government. She refused. He was, however, released to house arrest toward the end of 1980, perhaps because of representations the ambassador and I made at high levels of government. Shortly after, he was told that he would be returned to prison if he failed to persuade his wife to become a spy and if he refused to engage in spying activities himself.
A few weeks after that Norma Pineda left Nicaragua. Byron Pineda sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy in Managua, where he has lived for more than two years.
Late in 1980, the Latin American Studies Association, an organization of U.S. intellectuals interested in Latin America, held its annual meeting in Bloomington, Ind. Junta member Sergio Ramirez and Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto attended and were given a hero's ovation. James Cheek, then deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America, was jeered and heckled. (Cheek, one of the Foreign Service's most distinguished and enlightened specialists on Latin America, had played a crucial role in U.S. disengagement from Somoza as far back as 1974.)
In a subsequent Latin American Studies Association newsletter, Harvard Professor and Association President Jorge Dominguez described the Bloomington meeting as "one of the darkest moments of my professional life . . . appalling . . . scandalous . . . damnable."
I returned to the United States on July 1, 1981, and retired from AID early in 1982. I have been at Harvard working on a book on the relationship between culture and development. In December 1982, I was asked to appear on a panel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The principal speaker was Francisco Fiallos, then Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. Despite a subdued speech on Nicaragua's economic problems, Fiallos was given a hero's ovation by the 300 people inhe attendance. My comments focused on Sandinista human rights abuses and, in particular, Sandinist reneging on commitments to pluralism and nonalignment. I was booed and jeered repeatedly.
One week later, Fiallos defected.