By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Francisco Alvarado
By Tim Elfrink
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Tim Elfrink
I shook my head, closed my eyes, and wondered if the blazing tropical sun -- that hadn't changed, anyway -- had temporarily fried my brain. Slowly I let my eyelids slide back up. I was still standing in the lobby of Managua's Inter-Continental Hotel, and for a moment the newsstand looked normal again. The Collected Speeches of Fidel Castro...Qaddafi's Green Book...Maurice Bishop Speaks..."Penis Sizes of the Hollywood Stars." No matter how hard I blinked, it was still there, emblazoned in preposterous orange letters across the cover of Penthouse.
The revolution, I thought to myself, really is over.
Remember Nicaragua? The final battleground of the Cold War? The place that made Ollie North a household name and wrecked the Reagan presidency? The erstwhile banana republic that was either a snake-eyed Soviet juggernaut or a bucolic socialist utopia, pick one? The country that converted Hollywood mermaids and coke-addled rock stars into foreign-policy authorities? The nation that master spy William Casey, no matter how hard he tried, could never call anything but Nicawahwah?
Since Violeta Chamorro deposed Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1990 presidential elections, Nicaragua has dropped off all known political and journalistic trade routes. The American right, with no commies to bash, has gone in search of new targets; the left isn't interested in the poverty and disease of peasants who are so embarrassingly Politically Incorrect. They've all passed on now, the spooks, the glitterati, and the rest of the gringo interlopers, the camera crews trailing behind them. The New York Times keeps its bureau open only by renting out rooms for the night. Even that may be coming to an end; the bureau staff was surprised one recent morning by a grinning, gnomic Japanese in a silk guayabera who strode into the office with a briefcase and a portable phone. "Ahh, so," he observed. "You are still here?" The staff, watching him scurry away, remembered a time when we sent Marines to Nicaragua to cold cock a Japanese plan to build a canal across the country.
That was in 1909 and barely rates a mention in most history books. Already the most recent U.S. adventures in Nicaragua are fading to a dim memory for most Americans, a tantalizing deja vu answer to a question in the next edition of Trivial Pursuit.
But of course Managua is still there, as dusty and broken and sweltering as ever. So are its people, slightly bemused by their turn on the world stage and even a little nostalgic for it. And so, too, are the contras and the Sandinistas, who, it turns out after all, were not cooked up in basement laboratories at Langley or the Kremlin. They may have their next war all by themselves.
Of Turtles and Tummy-Trimmers
"Tortugas ninjas!" the little boy cried ominously, leaning in the window of my taxi as we waited at a stoplight. Ninja turtles! I jerked my head around, wondering what new plague this signified. The tropical stream-of-consciousness conversation of Nicaraguans baffles even themselves. Contra leader Eden Pastora once kept a group of his top commanders mystified for an hour while he railed about los taburetes chingados, the fucking chairs. Finally someone made the same word association as Pastora; taburete is the Spanish word for chair, but so is silla, which is pronounced just like CIA. Reporters covering Nicaragua must not only speak Spanish, they also need the free-association ability of a parrot on mescaline.
Within moments, however, I realized that ninja turtles meant...ninja turtles. The boy was selling brand-new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jigsaw puzzles, still shrink-wrapped. He was followed by a procession of peddlers, hawking briefcases, socket wrenches, and electric extension cords. The weirdest of all was a set of exercise pulleys called the Tummy-Trimmer with a succulent blond aerobics queen smiling coyly from the cover of the box.
For a decade, a glimpse of any new consumer goods in Nicaragua was the equivalent of a UFO sighting. Battered by not only the war but the loopy economic policies of a government that actually believed nine men could sit in a room in Managua and dictate the country's toilet-paper consumption for the next year, Nicaragua was a basket case. At Christmas in 1986, when the government announced that it had imported a shipload of toys and that members of Sandinista labor unions would be allowed to buy two apiece, the lines stretched for blocks. (Not every Sandinista bonanza was so popular. The next year, when the government obtained a couple of shiploads of Soviet-bloc potatoes in a barter deal, Nicaraguans refused to touch them: Everyone was convinced they were contaminated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Sandinista newspapers, in desperation, began running recipes for potato pizza.) The only place new imported goods could be found was the hard-currency store for party elites.
Macroeconomically, Nicaragua is still brain-dead. But at the bottom of the economic food chain, there are faint stirrings of life. All over Managua small shops and businesses are opening, from a shack where a ragged croupier takes bets in front of a homemade roulette wheel to a parlor where a former Sandinista bureaucrat lets kids play his Nintendo game for 60 cents a pop.
The quirkiest manifestation of all this is the street vendors who clog every Managua intersection. No one seems to know where they get their goods or how they determine that the capital's populace has a latent yen for Tummy-Trimmers.
"It's pretty strange," one American diplomat says. "It's like a shipment of stuff comes in from somewhere, and for a while you see it on every corner. A few weeks ago, everyone was selling screwdrivers. Then all of the sudden, all the screwdrivers were gone. Now the big thing is these small compressors that you can use to inflate a flat tire. I must have had three kids try to sell me one on the way in this morning."
Busting the Pinata
Not every new entrepreneur makes a go of it, of course, as the Sandinistas are learning. Most of the party's upper-echelon cadres are in their late thirties or early forties, and their job experience is pretty much limited to urban guerrilla skills and running a bloated government ministry. Those skills have limited application in the business world. A new Sandinista-backed airline that opened last year has already abandoned passenger service and is barely holding on in the cargo business. Their much-ballyhooed tourist resort (built at a beach estate they confiscated from Anastasio Somoza after toppling his government in 1979) is mostly empty. And their new TV station never went on the air because they couldn't sell any advertising. All the cameras and transmitting equipment are still sitting in their original cartons in a customs shed out at the airport. Businessmen can't conceal their glee.
"The Sandinistas have never been any good at producing things," one sniffed to me. "Their great talent has always been stealing things."
And, indeed, the airline, the resort, and the broadcasting enterprise were apparently financed in part with money looted from government bank accounts during the two-month transition period in 1990 between Violeta Chamorro's victory over Daniel Ortega and her inauguration as president. Those two months are known today as "the great pinata," after the candy-stuffed, papier-mache figures that children break open at parties.
And what a party it was! The outgoing Sandinistas pocketed everything that wasn't nailed down and a lot of stuff that was. They emptied a single Central Bank account of $24 million, equal to about 40 percent of all the currency in circulation in Nicaragua. The large villas confiscated by the government after the revolution were sold to individual party members for prices as low as $1000. So were immense coffee and cotton plantations and dozens of radio stations and movie theaters. Cars, tractors, photocopiers, typewriters, refrigerators, the Sandinistas took it all. They even sold themselves half an hour of time on the government TV station, every night for the next five years. The regular price would have been $9000 per night; the comandantes charged themselves $25 per night.
Among the few businesses to prosper under Sandinista direction were the movie theaters. Most of them were seized right after the revolution in 1979, and the Sandinista government operated them. There seemed to be little ideological content in programming; all through the war they continued to screen subtitled American movies, although as the government went bankrupt, the film selection got older and older.
Audiences didn't seem to mind that -- in fact, when one of the theaters got hold of an ancient print of Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not in 1987, it did boffo box office for weeks. But they did mind that nothing that broke in the theaters ever got fixed. The popcorn and soft-drink machines went first. Then the air conditioning gave out, turning the buildings into sweltering hellholes. And the primordial projectors made every film look like it was shot in Cokebottlevision. The only thing that kept the theaters alive was that Sandinista television was so stupefyingly boring. At one point it was promoting (I swear to God I am not making this up) Bulgarian sitcoms.
But as television improved in the post-Sandinista era (well, relatively speaking; it now features Tour of Duty, Venezuelan soap operas, and The Wonder Years) and new videocassettes poured into the country, the movie theaters teetered on the brink of oblivion. Then, in a stroke of counterprogramming genius, they began screening soft-core porn. Now on any given night, most of Managua's dozen or so theaters are showing flicks titled Erotic Wives or something similar, and most of the theaters are full.
For the Sandinistas to be peddling porn is something of a role reversal; like most Marxist revolutionaries, they had a prudish streak, and most sexually oriented material was banned while they governed. (That didn't, however, stop Daniel Ortega from granting an interview to Penthouse in 1988. Sample question: "President Reagan once called Managua a `moral threat' to the hemisphere. Do you think it was because of your country's sexual freedom that he said that?" Ortega: "I don't think so.") Their new embrace of carnal matters has led to some strange political flip-flops.
For instance, Minister of Education Humberto Belli, a former newspaperman who fled Nicaragua in 1982 to escape Sandinista censorship, regularly denounces the porn films. (He's also concerned about the independent leftist Comic Weekly, a self-styled publication of "humor, Marxism, sex, and violence." The comic book frequently makes fun of the new cathedral the Catholic church is building in Managua, with pictures of priests kneeling before a cathedral cupola with a suspiciously phallic look to it.) Last month Belli called for the government to prohibit books and films that depict sex "as merely a pleasurable act."
Meanwhile the Sandinistas -- who imposed wide-ranging censorship within months of coming to power and kept it in place until a few days before they left office -- have suddenly discovered John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. My favorite impassioned denunciation of government censorship was an August op-ed piece in Barricada, the Sandi's daily newspaper, by a young woman named Nelba Blandon, who wrote ardently of "the dominion of the free debate of ideas." Oh, yes, she added, she was the same Nelba Blandon who spent six years as the Sandinista military censor, ripping stories out of opposition newspapers by the dozens every single day. But every time she killed a story, Blandon wrote, it was with a "critical conscience," and she found her work "difficult."
What Do You Do With a General? (Part I)
What can you do with a general
When he stops being a general?
Oh what can you do with a general who retires?
Who's got a job for a general
When he stops being a general?
They all get a job but a general no one hires.
They fill his chest with medals
While he's across the foam
And they spread the crimson carpet
When he comes marchin' home.
The next day someone hollers
When he comes into view
"Here comes the general!"
They all say, "General who"
-- Bing Crosby
The best-known house in Managua is one that hardly anybody has seen in twelve years. It's the mansion where Daniel Ortega lives. The house belongs to Amparo Morales, a Mexican woman who fled Nicaragua to escape the violence during the final days of the revolution. She returned a few weeks later, and when she opened the front door, there stood Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife, wearing one of Amparo's bathrobes. That was the last time Amparo set foot in her own house -- the revolutionary government had confiscated it, she learned, on the grounds that her husband was a wealthy Nicaraguan banker. (No matter that he had a long and distinguished history of opposition to the Somoza dynasty that the Sandinistas had just toppled.) Soon after, a twenty-foot-high wall went up around the house, completely hiding it from view.
When the Sandinistas lost the election in 1990, Amparo Morales returned to Nicaragua in the hope that the new government would return her house. But it seems the government no longer owns the million-dollar mansion: Daniel Ortega bought it during the pinata at a five-finger discount price of $4000. Since then Amparo's efforts to shame him into leaving the digs have been daily headlines in the Managua papers. She even got the Mexican ambassador to write Ortega a reproving letter, although the fact that the Mexican Embassy itself is located in a confiscated mansion didn't exactly cloak the ambassador in moral authority.
One morning I asked my taxi driver to take me to the Ortega house. "The Morales house," he reprimanded me, as we set off. "And it's not a house, either." When we arrived, I saw what he meant. It's a two-square-block compound. In the guard posts atop the walls, I counted more than two dozen soldiers armed with automatic rifles.
"Why would the army be guarding Daniel Ortega?" I asked the driver. "He has no connection to the government now."
"That's the way it is here," the driver sniffed. "The Sandinistas think they still run everything." As we drove away, he added: "And they're right. They do run everything, because they have all the guns."
He was referring to Daniel's brother Humberto, who still commands the Nicaraguan army. The Chamorro government's decision to retain him has been a hugely unpopular one, all the more so since his bodyguards gunned down a Managua teen-ager who had the effrontery to try to pass the general's motorcade with his vehicle. (A police officer who investigated the teen-ager's murder was himself shot to death a couple of weeks later in a still-murky case. Since then Managua motorists -- who ordinarily resemble truckers gone mad with white-line fever -- turn into veritable Miss Mannerses when Humberto's car is in sight.)
The other seven Sandinista comandantes are still trying to settle into postrevolutionary life. (The eighth, Carlos Nunez, died of cancer after the election. Skeptical of non-Marxist medical care, he spent his last days in a Havana hospital.) Tomas Borge, former head of the secret police whose main knowledge of journalism comes from jailing reporters, has announced that he'll use his contacts to conduct magazine interviews with world leaders for $10,000 a throw. The main obstacle is that all the world leaders Borge is friendly with have either been overthrown or are teetering on the brink. Luis Carrion Cruz, in charge of penning up several thousand Indians in relocation camps during the early years of the revolution, is drawing on his experience while working toward a master's in public administration at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Victor Tirado, the Mexican citizen who was the wimpiest of the comandantes, has continued in that role. Unemployed, he recently told a New York Times reporter that he'd appreciate it if she'd mention in a story that he was available for an all-expenses-paid visit to the United States if someone would like to invite him. The most puzzling case is that of Daniel Ortega. Daniel's public mood swings are not quite so erratic as his wife's -- once the chief Sandinista honcho on cultural affairs, she was booted from her position earlier this year after calling the party "a mountain of shit" in a newspaper interview -- but they have nonetheless attracted plenty of comment. On July 4 Daniel checked himself into a military hospital in the middle of the night. Several radio stations reported that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His press secretary said he just wanted a massage. Then, apparently forgetting that her boss' word is no longer law, she called international news agencies in Managua and ordered them not to run stories about the hospitalization.
If Daniel is going crazy, it would certainly be understandable. First he lost an election to a housewife who, by all accounts, has the political instincts of a clam. Then there was the matter of his memoirs. With his Washington mouthpiece, Paul Reichler, Daniel went to New York last year, installed himself in an elegant Upper East Side mansion, and announced he would receive publishers interested in bidding on his autobiography (provided, of course, that they brought gifts for his entourage). The process was supposed to culminate in an auction where the minimum bid would be $300,000 and $1 million the expected sale price. The auction was held -- but the venal capitalists of the publishing world, unswayed by Daniel's vision of "a literary book that transcends politics" as opposed to one containing actual facts, failed to offer a single minimum bid. Daniel went home empty-handed.
And to top it all off, his Middle Eastern peace mission failed rather spectacularly. For weeks last winter Daniel crisscrossed Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in an attempt to quell the unpleasantness between George Bush and Saddam Hussein. (No one seems to know who picked up the tab.) Listen to me, Daniel kept saying, I understand the gringos. And perhaps he did. He left Baghdad for the last time the day before the bombs started to fall.
The Guy the Sandinistas Hate Most
That would be Arnoldo Aleman, the mayor of Managua. A hard-drinking, foul-mouthed politician of the old Nicaraguan school -- that is, the only thing more important than passing out patronage to your friends is screwing your enemies -- Aleman is a quick man with a needle. One of his first acts as mayor was to repaint the giant initials the Sandinistas had placed on a mountainside overlooking the capital. The Sandinistas' Hollywood-style logo, which had faded considerably over the years, boasted the Spanish abbreviation for Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN. Aleman changed it to FIN, Spanish for "the end." A few weeks later, he erased the letters altogether. He followed that up by whitewashing several elaborate socialist-realism murals that Sandinista artists had painstakingly painted on the walls of government buildings. But those were mere warm-ups for Aleman's next maneuver. Claiming there was no money in the budget, he cut off the gas to the eternal flame that burns over the tomb of Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista party.
All this inspired Enrique Dreyfus, the foreign minister, to take down the colossal portrait of Nora Astorga that had hung in the ministry's main lobby. Astorga's portrait was there ostensibly because of her service as Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-Eighties. Actually the Sandinistas canonized her for enticing one of Somoza's generals to her bed and then helping a hit squad cut his throat, chop o his penis, and put it in his mouth.
Dreyfus was trumped, in turn, by the 159 residents of Los Garreadores, a village about twenty miles southeast of Managua. In April they held a meeting and agreed to change the name of the village to Ronald Reagan. "That ex-president helped us a lot," explained the 68-year-old mayor, Raul Espinoza. "Because of him, the nation lives in democracy."
What Do You Do With a General? (Part II)
"Come in, come in," the former contra leader said eagerly, welcoming me to a Spartan office in a small building on a barren edge of Managua. "What's going on in Washington? I hear Cliff is singing like a canary. Can that be true?"
"Cliff" is the name by which the contras knew Alan Fiers, former head of the CIA's Central American Task Force, who pleaded guilty this summer to a charge of lying to Congress and is now cooperating with the Iran-contra special prosecutor's office. The contras were always divided about Fiers's skills as a spy, but they unanimously agreed that he had the finest collection of Arab cutlasses they had ever seen.
But it seems like another lifetime now, most of the former contra leaders say, since the days when they were frequent visitors to the White House and knew their way around the halls at Langley. About the only time they talk about it is when a journalist from the old days visits Nicaragua. The rest of the time they are too busy trying to rebuild lives that were put on hold for ten years for the war.
"I've had my picture in the New York Times and Time magazine and all over the world, and so what?" Adolfo Calero, one of the top contra politicians, told me. "I'm still a beginner here. I'm a lot poorer, a lot less established, a lot less everything than I was in 1982 when I left the country."
Calero, who still has a house in Kendall, works as the Managua representative of an Italian construction company and he's trying to start a small fruit-juice bottling company. (In the old days, he was general manager of the local Coca-Cola bottler.) He's staying out of politics in favor of making money, at least for the time being. But not all the former contra politicians chose that route. Many of them hold government positions. Frank Arana, manager of the contras' clandestine radio stations and one of the rebels who was closest to the CIA, moved from Miami back to Nicaragua and is now Violeta Chamorro's chief spokesman. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the president's son and a former member of the contra political directorate, bought his family a house in Kendall but is now Nicaragua's ambassador to Taiwan. Lest that sound like a nepotistic sinecure, let us note that the Nicaraguan "embassy" in Taipei is Pedro Joaquin's one-bedroom apartment. The only reason it exists at all is that Taiwan offered the Chamorro government $60 million to break relations with China and recognize the Nationalist regime.
The most visible ex-contra is Alfredo Cesar, a slick, cunning, Stanford M.B.A. who this year was elected president of the Nicaraguan congress. Nicknamed "Seven Daggers" for all the political backs he's stabbed, Cesar, who owns a town house in Kendall, has gotten a piece of the action in every political game played in Nicaragua in the past fifteen years. The Sandinistas made him president of the Central Bank when they first took over. The job was a little more rough-and-tumble than Alan Greenspan's. During one meeting of the bank board, Sandinista comandante Henry Ruiz got so furious at Cesar that he slammed his briefcase on the conference table, opened it, and pulled out a folding-stock AK-47. Cesar slammed his briefcase on the table, opened it, and pulled out a 9mm Makarov pistol. There was a widely supported motion to adjourn.
Cesar left the Sandinistas in the early Eighties to form his own imaginary contra group. But his king-size ambition was so apparent that almost no one trusted him, except perhaps Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. She was so smitten that she managed to have $5 million of the $100 million contra aid package approved in 1986 reserved for Cesar's army -- which then could have afforded to buy each one of its twenty soldiers his own tank. Later Cesar wangled his way onto the political directorate of the main contra organization. The high point of his tenure was the night during peace talks with the Sandinistas in Managua when Cesar was caught sneaking over the wall of the contra hotel at 4:00 a.m. by a guard who nearly blew his head off. Cesar had been at a secret midnight meeting with Sandinista military leaders, the subject of which is unknown to this day.
In 1989 Cesar left the contras to support Violeta Chamorro's presidential bid. The Chamorro campaign represented a return to the traditional way Nicaraguans practice politics, along clan lines. Although there was a fourteen-party coalition behind Chamorro, the group's officials were completely frozen out of the campaign. Instead, every detail was managed by a tightly knit family circle: Chamorro's daughter, Cristiana; Cristiana's husband, the MIT-educated Antonio Lacayo; Lacayo's sister, Silvia; and Silvia's husband, Cesar. When Chamorro won the election, the family council became Nicaragua's real government. (Chamorro's vice president, by contrast, wasn't even given a government office.)
That was the case, anyway, until a few months ago. But both Cesar and Antonio Lacayo want to be president of Nicaragua in the year 2000, so a break was inevitable. The first public clue was when, in front of an astonished but appreciative audience of houseguests, Silvia screamed at Cristiana: "You ungrateful bitch, we made your mother president!"
Such unrefined language will never be heard from yuppie graduates of Stanford and MIT. Instead, Cesar and Lacayo manifest their hostility for one another through the so-called War of the Shirts. On Monday Cesar appears in an Armani. Tuesday Lacayo returns fire with a Romeo Gigli. Wednesday Cesar strikes back with a Ralph Lauren. The presidential election is not until 1996, by which time things will undoubtedly have escalated to gold lame jump suits and diamond-studded codpieces.
They're called los miamiboys. A few thousand of the Nicaraguan professionals and technicians who fled to Miami during Sandinista rule have begun trickling back into Managua. Many of them have spent the past decade despising their exile home, longing to return to Nicaragua. But the homecoming hasn't been easy.
"There's a very cold feeling here towards us," one miamiboy told me. "There's an attitude that only the people who stayed are true Nicaraguans. I also think there's a lot of financial jealousy -- an anger that we were successful in the United States."
The miamiboys are time travelers. They come bearing goods from a future that most Nicaraguans have only been able to dream of: Volvos, satellite dishes, microwave ovens, CD players, fax machines, personal computers, all the fruits of the Western industrial society that the Sandinistas rejected. Small wonder that Managua burglaries have skyrocketed during the past year.
But the miamiboys also bring alien customs and attitudes that they unknowingly picked up during their long sojourn among the gringos. One glaring difference is that many of them no longer operate on "Nica time." That is, a 10:00 a.m. appointment means 10:00 a.m. to them, not 11:30. Another is their impatience with inefficiency. They've grown accustomed to reliable telephones and electricity, to paying bills by mail, to being able to get in and out of a restaurant in less than an hour. By contrast, anyone who has lived in Managua for the past ten years abandoned all those ideas or went completely crazy. Appointments had to be made in person rather than over the always-dysfunctional phone; you were grateful if a restaurant had food at all, never mind the service; and anything that was lucky enough to arrive by mail would have been read twice by the secret police and picked over by starving postal clerks.
In some ways the miamiboys are changing Nicaragua. Managua now has three 24-hour gas stations, which is little short of revolutionary. And someone with admirable entrepreneurial spirit, if deplorable business ethics, has opened a fast-food place called "Gabe's Burgers," its name and logo, not coincidentally, identical to that of the popular Miami chain. Gabe's owner Lewis Goodman admits that the fact that he's registered the chain's name as a trademark probably doesn't carry much weight in Nicaragua. (Actually, fast food is not new to Nicaragua. A McDonald's opened in Managua in 1972 and, forgotten by its corporate masters in the North, continued to operate even during the war. But the jig was up in late 1986, when novelist Denis Johnson set a scene in his book The Stars at Noon there: "With the meat shortage you wouldn't ever know absolutely, would you, what sort of a thing they were handing you in the guise of beef.... It's the only Communist-run McDonald's ever. It's the only McDonald's where you have to give back your plastic cup so it can be washed out and used again, the only McDonald's staffed by people wearing military fatigues and carrying submachine guns." Shortly afterward McDonald's revoked the Managua franchise and demanded that its name come off the building. The owner obediently pulled down the Mc, but even today the place serves a Don Mac.)
In some cases, though, Nicaragua seduces the miamiboys back into the old ways. The first to feel the sting have been miamiboy teen-agers, who were small children when their families went into exile and have grown up as gringos. Already shell-shocked at their arrival in a country with no shopping malls or video games, the kids are horrified that their parents are slipping back into traditional Nicaraguan class consciousness when it comes to dating. At dinner one night, I listened to a group of miamiboys discuss the growing generation gaps in their families.
"I had a big fight with my daughter tonight," a newly arrived food-processing executive -- technically speaking, a newjerseyboy -- recounted. "She said, `I'm going out with a boy tonight.' `Not until I know his name you're not,' I said. `His name is Juan Castillo,' she said. `I met him at the American School.' `Yeah,' I said, `but what's his mother's name?' `I don't know,' my daughter said, `and besides, what difference does it make?' `It makes all the difference in who he is,' I told her, `and you're not going out with him until I know the answer.'"
"I had the same argument with my daughter," a woman across the table agreed. "She said, `Mom, you would never have asked a question like that in Miami.' `That was Miami, and this is Managua,' I told her. `There are different rules here.' Unless I know both sides of that boy's family, he could be -- he could be -- he could be anybody."
War-torn, bureaucracy-bound, Third World countries breed a unique species known as fixers. They are essentially gofers who cater to high-octane journalists too busy, or too lazy, to do their own dirty work. Fixers scan the local press for story ideas, penetrate layers of palace guards to arrange interviews, tape press conferences, change money on the black market, and find gasoline and batteries and whatever else is in short supply. The most famous fixer in Nicaraguan history was a young guy named Isaac who used to work for Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times. Isaac was such a worker bee that other reporters used to joke that Kinzer was going to get a master's in journalism from Columbia; Isaac would attend the classes for him.
With most of the foreign press gone, there aren't many fixers left in Nicaragua. But one remains, with a bizarre specialty. You want to dig up a clandestine cemetery full of peasant victims of the Sandinistas, Raoul Shade's your man. He'll guide you over rutted mountain roads and through mine fields to the site; he'll pitch in with a shovel, and afterward he'll round up the local peasants to tell who got killed, when, and why. The fee: your publication has to buy a picture from him. He'll take whatever your standard rate is, although he did once turn down the cheapskates at the Washington Post. "They pay $75 for a picture, which is not very much for running around the countryside for two days," Shade told me forlornly. "I thought it should be at least $100."
Other reporters have not been so penurious. Shade has a sizable roster of satisfied clients, including the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, the Village Voice, and the National Review. When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) was in Managua recently, in need of an emergency photo op, he retained Shade, who guided him to some photogenic skeletons.
The cemetery trade, as you might expect, is not a high-volume one. Shade, in fact, lives hand-to-mouth between digs, surviving mostly on free lunches from sympathetic journalists. His ghoulish work is really a labor of love. "I want people to know what the Sandinistas did," he says. "I don't ever want them to be able to come back in power."
Such statements have given Shade, who's slight of build and looks much younger than his 46 years, a reputation among many reporters as a right-wing nut. In fact, his polits are largely inchoate, just a sort of fuzzy feeling that people should be nice to one another. "I'm apolitical, I guess," Shade agrees. "I'm interested in human rights. If you're interested in human rights, you clash with all sides."
Check with the right-wing government in neighboring El Salvador. Shade worked there as a free-lance photographer from early 1984 to late 1986, documenting the abuses of the army. He was arrested four times, after which authorities suggested his health was about to take a precipitous decline if he stayed in El Salvador. So Shade moved on to Nicaragua. As he had in El Salvador, he lived in the countryside, getting to know the peasants.
"How long -- "
" -- did it take me to start hating the Sandinistas?" he finished the question for me. "About six months. That's about how long it took for the peasants to start trusting me. And when they trusted me, they started telling me about the cemeteries."
Each one holds from 10 to 60 bodies, the corpses of peasants who were summarily executed as suspected contra collaborators. Shade was stunned at first -- human-rights organizations and the international press corps, which were going at the abuses of the Salvadoran government with hammer and tongs, had been silent on the subject of Nicaragua -- but he heard the stories from so many peasants that he had to believe them. Yet there was nothing he could do; most of the cemeteries were located near Sandinista military bases, where it would be impossible to turn the earth without attracting unwelcome attention. So he took careful notes and waited. In June 1990, less than two months after Violeta Chamorro took office, he dug up his first burial ground. Since then he's uncovered nine more.
"What I don't understand," says Shade, "is why there isn't more interest in the story. If someone finds graves of people killed by the military governments in Argentina or Chile, then the whole world demands an investigation. But here, I can't even get anybody to donate a used jeep and a few tanks of gas."
Meanwhile reporters interested in their own exclusive clandestine-cemetery-dig story need not worry that they've been scooped. Shade knows of at least twenty more burial grounds.
The killing hasn't stopped, oh no. Gringos of all ideological stripes like to think they taught Nicaraguans how to slaughter one another, but the killing started long before the first European set foot in the country, and it will continue long after the last one has gone.
When Violeta Chamorro was elected president, it seemed there was no further rationale for the civil war. Some 20,000 contras handed in their weapons to United Nations observers in return for promises of land and security. They got neither. What little land was delivered was too remotely located to farm. (In order to buy their silence, a number of contra commanders were given pickup trucks, houses, or small businesses.) And the army and police remained in the hands of the Sandinistas. Even though the army has shrunk by two-thirds, it still numbers 21,000 -- three times its size in the days of Somoza.
That army has continued to settle scores from the civil war. Americas Watch has documented more than 50 murders of former contras so far this year. The most publicized murder was that of Enrique Bermudez, the former contra military leader who was shot in the back this past February in the parking lot of the Inter-Continental Hotel. His body was flown back to Miami and buried in a Kendall cemetery, not far from where his wife and three children still live.
And while other slayings of former contras occurred before and since, the still-unsolved murder of Bermudez galvanized the men who had fought under him; there was no doubt in their minds about who pulled the trigger. If the Sandinistas could so brazenly kill such a high-profile figure in such a public place, then no one was safe. Ex-contras had been engaged in confrontations with the Sandinista army since late last year, but now they began to get serious, retrieving caches of weapons that they had hidden just in case disarmament didn't go well. On April 30 they launched their first attack, ambushing a Sandinista military construction crew near the Honduran border. Since then, there have been at least thirteen attacks by the so-called recontras.
Six groups of recontras are operating in the northern provinces along the Honduran border. A seventh is forming in the south. So far only about 1000 men are carrying arms on a full-time basis. But the numbers are misleading. When recontras took the town of Wiwili and held it for two days in mid-July, the entire population helped feed them and bring them intelligence about advancing Sandinista army units. The recontras could easily add thousands more soldiers, but they learned from their last war, when their recruiting outstripped their logistical abilities. "We could have five times this many men tomorrow morning," a recontra leader who calls himself El Indomable -- the indomitable one -- told a visitor recently. "But when you have that many soldiers, you're a bigger target, and it's harder to find enough tortillas for them in a single village. We don't need a lot of men. Yet."
El Indomable (his real name is Jose Angel Moran) is the most militarily aggressive of the recontra leaders, a tall, cadaverous man who speaks in the hollow cadences of someone who has nothing left to lose. He doesn't. In December, a Sandinista army patrol machine-gunned his house. He wasn't home, but his pregnant wife was killed. El Indomable and the other recontras want the army freed from Sandinista control. They might settle for less -- perhaps a removal of local military commanders with particularly odious human-rights records -- but so far the government hasn't been willing to discuss that seriously. El Indomable isn't surprised.
"Here in Nicaragua," he observed recently, "the only dialogue we ever have is with bullets."
Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras, to be published in the spring by Brassey's. He lives in Coral Gables.