Nicaragua taught me so much about the world and critical thinking. All during the 1980s it was the center of news reports every day. President Reagan was obsessed with the country and its president, Daniel Ortega (pictured above). Reagan continually referred to the Sandinista government there as a “Marxist, Leninist, repressive totalitarian regime.” However, he neglected to apply his lofty standards to what preceded it, viz. the Somoza dynasty of three dictators who governed the country brutally with the full support of the United States.
Reagan’s obsession took the form of support for an equally brutal counter-revolutionary force of terrorists called “the Contras” – whose base was the exiled National Guard of the Somoza regime. Reagan famously referred to those killers and drug runners as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”
My experience in Brazil along with careful reading of the press and some history had convinced me that the Reagan administration was disseminating what a Great Man would later term “fake news.” But I wanted to find out for myself.
So in 1985 I found myself in Managua for six weeks. My specific purpose in going was twofold. The first was fact-finding; I wanted to experience life in a revolutionary situation. I also needed to learn Spanish, which was increasingly necessary for my work in liberation theology. That was my second aim. Languages, by the way, are nearly universally recognized as powerful aids to critical thinking. They expand awareness of other cultures, different points of view and ways of expression.
Along those lines, one of the strengths of my training for the priesthood had been language study. In high school it began with Latin my freshman year. Then came French and Greek. All of those studies continued through my sophomore year in college. Next, of course, I had to learn Italian for my years in Rome. Just before that I needed a semester of Hebrew to qualify for theological studies there; so I took a summer course at Harvard. Once in Rome, it became apparent that German would be essential for my doctoral thesis on Jurgen Moltmann and his Theology of Hope. That led to two summers’ study at the University of Vienna. Then I needed Portuguese for my sabbatical in Brazil. And finally, in ’85 it was Spanish in Managua.
For two summers, I studied at Casa Nicaraguense de Español. It had students living with Nicaraguan families, leaving for Spanish class every morning and then studying the Revolution every afternoon. We visited prisons, farming co-ops, and offices of both the Sandinistas and their political opponents. We attended political rallies and demonstrations. The experience was difficult, but invaluable in terms of expanding my horizons and acquainting me with revolutionary thought and practice. Over the next 20 years I would return to the country a dozen or more times. In 1990 I would do so as an Official Observer of the election that defeated the Sandinistas, replacing them with a U.S.-supported party. I edited a book on the topic.
On that first visit, however, I was amazed by the range of books available in Managua that I would never have otherwise encountered. They covered all aspects of Marxism, socialism, history, education, liberation theology – and critical thinking. It was a treasure trove for me. Reading those books acquainted me with a line of thinking “forbidden” to most Americans.
As I said, this first experience in Central America made an extremely important contribution to my political education. It brought me into further contact with the living conditions of working-class people on the receiving end of extremely destructive US Third World policy. The contrast between what I observed in Nicaragua and what our government said about the country was astounding. It pointed to the fundamentally dishonest character of our national leadership. In addition, those books I mentioned underscored the one-sided bias of our mainstream press, scholarship and teaching.
What I learned from all this, along with the other experiences I’ve outlined here so far, has made me terribly suspicious of our government. Revelations connected with the Iran-Contra scandal heightened the suspicion exponentially. I saw clearly that the lies told about the Sandinistas were only the latest in a long string of misleading stories, cover-ups, and paper-overs foisted upon the North American public. Contra-gate, Vietnam and Watergate were the rule, not the exception. Sad to say, they represent the way our government does business.
In the end, I concluded that the burden of proof will always rest with our officials, rather than with our country’s designated Third enemies, including those currently identified as “terrorists.”
(Next Week: Costa Rica and Franz Hinkelammert)