I have three strategies for getting interviews. One, I find an expert or contact in the field and ask for introductions. That is how I met leading Nicaraguan broadcaster and journalist Carlos Chamorro, via Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times Bureau chief and author of the classic Blood of Brothers. A second is pressing people I meet while traveling for intros and contacts. That’s how I met Benjamin Lugo who shared his story of becoming a Sandinista, then turning against the revolution. And, third, I just show up.
On Monday, I ask a taxi driver to take me to La Prensa, the newspaper which served as ground zero of the resistance to President Anastasio Somoza. We arrive at a stark white concrete building, and are told by security that, no, the office is closed for the national holiday. I return two days later, walk into the reception area and ask to speak to a reporter who surely would, 1) want to do a story on my project, and, 2) introduce me to a reporter or editor who had interesting stories to tell. A very young female reporter in casual dress comes out and interviews me in the lobby. After our interview, she promises to ask around, to see if someone might be willing to talk with me. She emerges some time later with the phone number and email of editor-in-chief Eduardo Enriquez. I look up his bio and see that he has attended an event at the Aspen Institute, so I implore him, via email and voicemail, as a fellow Aspen participant, to make time for me. And he does.
I return the next day. My pulse quickens as I am brought into the newsroom, the hallowed ground where dictators were opposed, where editors were intimidated and murdered, where truth was spoken to power with high stakes consequences.
I wait in the editor’s office, looking around at framed pictures, awards and publications. My ongoing fear of losing battery power leads me to jerry rig two recording devices, safely tucked into power outlets. Eduardo arrives, late from an editorial meeting, with a warm, energetic welcome, eager to talk. He bemoans the fact that I came during a holiday and offers to meet again to talk some more. We talk about the Sandinista revolution and the subsequent CIA-backed contra-led counter-revolution, and how the civil war came to be.
If there was no Reagan administration, no Casey, no CIA supporting the contras, would there have been a counter-revolution?
Of some sort. The Sandinista regime, hard to say if it would have lasted only 10 years, or more, because you have to take into account the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a very important fact. The problem was that it was a dictatorial regime, and…
Was that a surprise?
Well, back then, it was. We were very hopeful that things would turn out differently. I think Nicaraguans are very childish in their political analysis. We don’t study enough history. We think there will be quick fixes, a revolution, and everything will be fine and dandy. But these people come from the same society with the same values that dominated the situation before they overthrew it. They don’t have any other point of reference, and once they get into power, they do the same.
And many of them were young, living in the mountains, brutalized…
Daniel Ortega was 35, one of the elders. You had comandantes in charge of entire regions who were 23 years old. One of them I interviewed, Henry Reed, he said we thought we were supermen. That tells you the way they thought.
So when members of the junta like Violetta Chamorro began to see that this is not going the way we wanted, she then left the junta, what was the thinking about what they were going to do about it, before the contras emerged?
Dona Violetta left, she just wanted to go home, to be a normal person, that’s what she always wanted to be, to dedicate herself to her family. She went back to work here at La Prensa because she had to, she was the widow of the publisher. If not, she would have rather stayed home with her children and grandchildren.
There was another character, Alfonso Robelo, who was more political. Got out of the junta and decided to start up his own political movement. He was a businessman, but his view was that of a social democrat. There was a group of businessmen around him that were basically a social democratic party. I think that they were hopeful that if there were elections, if there was a level playing field, things would work out well. Problem is, the Sandinistas did not have the slightest intention of relinquishing power.
Coming from Guatemala, there was some mythic anecdote where Arbenz (overthrown by the CIA in 1954) is on the stage with Che and Fidel in Cuba, and they proclaim, we are not going to be another Guatemala.
That’s a way of looking at it. In that moment, there was a Cold War going on. These guys were leftists, it was probably hard to communicate with the U.S., you had the Soviets and the Cubans helping, and after all, the Cubans helped them for years. Daniel Ortega was talking about the international revolution. One of his first big signs — I am sure you have seen in the streets — says, workers of the world unite….
That sounds pretty Marxist to me. Is Daniel Ortega a Marxist today?
Daniel Ortega is a very complex guy. He thinks he is a Marxist, but he has tasted capitalism for a lot of years, and he has started to like it. And his wife too. And his children. So they are all entrepreneurs.
Hold it. You’re not saying he has enriched himself while in office?!
Totally. He is probably the richest man in the country.
Daniel Ortega today is what Somoza was in 1967.
That’s a very strong statement.
The social and economic situation, the mood of the people, you have an economy that is more or less working, you know that if you don’t get involved in politics, probably you won’t get bothered, if you can keep your mouth shut, you’ll be ok.
There was a saying, If you don’t jump, you’re not with us, you’re with the contras. Everybody would go to (rallies in) the plaza and jump. Stupid people, it was a very pathetic view. I think people right now are thinking, if I am going to stay here awhile, I better accommodate Ortega and stay away. From the biggest business man to the worker on the street.
Do you look back at the contras as an intrusion into the sovereign affairs of the country, or do you look at it as a partially understandable and even expected Cold War outcome with the kind of intense rhetoric and anti-democratic behavior of the Sandinistas?
I think it (the counter revolution) was going to happen anyway, but of course without the backing of the United States, they didn’t stand a chance.
And this is something that I am very critical of, this low intensity war, that is probably one of the cruelest things you can do to a country. We are starting a war, we don’t want to win it, we don’t want to lose it, we just are going to be killing people.
Was there any point at which the contras were close to overthrowing the Sandinista government?
No. They both lost. They lost their backing. If they sat down at the negotiating table, it was because they were running out of things to throw at each other.
You don’t just wake up one day and say I am a democrat and I’ll start a republic. Young citizens have to learn values, older people have to learn democratic values. I think that is where we failed. I very much agree with your view. We overthrow Saddam Hussein and everything is fine and dandy, well it’s not. We overthrow Khaddafi, everything will be fine. Well, it doesn’t turn out that way, it’s probably even worse, because everyone feels they have a right to be the ruling class, to have power.
As you look back at the historical support of the U.S. for the Somoza family, and its creation and support of the contras, what would you like to see from the U.S. in its foreign policy toward Nicaragua?
Back then, when you look at Somoza and his personal behavior, it was like an American family was in charge of Nicaragua. They talked to each other in English. His wife was named Hope, not Esperanza, she was born in Tampa. It was like an occupying army, the Guardia Nacional. The U.S. behaved like, we have a guy we can trust down there, let’s keep him there.
And he was functionally useful in the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and with the Guatemala overthrow.
With the war on drugs, Ortega was very effective because the army and the police were very effective. Now they (U.S. government) say we have this guy there, he doesn’t want to leave, our national interest is that there is no drug trafficking, and that the maras (gangs) do not go wild there, so why mess with him.
There is better control of narco trafficking here compared to Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala. Was there anything that happened in Central America that provides lessons learned for U.S. policy in the Middle East?
That’s a very difficult…if I had the answer, I would be Secretary of State, if not President. I think that this policy of trying to fit everyone within the American mold of democracy, especially in the Reagan and Bush administrations, you have to take into account the culture. We might not like the way they treat their women, but we cannot expect to change millenia of culture, so I think the U.S. should take more into account the culture, because trying to force them to be a democratic society does not work. You reach that point after a process. You don’t wake up one day and become a democracy. Latin American countries are much closer to the U.S. but it has failed here too, because we don’t have the rule of law and democratic values in our culture. Most people in polls here say there is a democracy, but a large percent of people believe it because there is peace, and the absence of war is democracy for them. Rights? I didn’t have rights before with Somoza, not in the 80’s, or the 90’s, and I don’t have them now. I’m poor, what do I care about rights?
Why is Daniel Ortega not more supportive of a free press?
They interpret this freedom, they have never known freedom. We Nicaraguans don’t know what to do with real freedom, the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, from Ortega down. Back then, why didn’t they respect freedom of the press and speech? Because they saw it as part of the war of aggression. Twenty years ago, I interviewed Carlos Fernandez Chamorro — ask him when you see him — well read, educated in England, son of Pedro Chamorro, when I interviewed him, he was editing (Sandinista newspaper) Barricada while this newspaper was closed, and he said, well, it was a war of aggression, and they saw La Prensa as a mouthpiece of the contras and the aggressors.
We are not citizens. We do not know that we have rights. We don’t value those rights and we don’t value those responsibilities. If you don’t think the way I think, you are my enemy. Because you are trying to destroy what I am trying to build because what I am trying to build is the greatest thing in the world, the revolution, where everyone will be happy.
Who killed Pedro Chamorro?
We still don’t know. The theory regarding Somoza, was that there was this Cuban, who ran Plasmaferesis (rumored to be a Somoza family-controlled plasma bank which sold peasant blood to the United States at a 10x markup), pretty much everyone agrees, probably because it is the easiest thing to believe, that he had something to do with it.
Was he arrested?
No, he left the day before and went to Miami.
That was convenient.
He was never arrested. Everybody had their own theory. Some people say his son did it. Javier Molina, one of our editors here, did a very long interview, he wrote a book about it, talking to his son, of course he says he didn’t do it, but he gives his reasons. We printed that interview here at La Prensa and we had a lot of trouble, part of the family was not happy with us.
Does the family still own the paper outright?
The three Chamorro brothers had 100% of the shares.
Which of the Chamorros are actively involved in the newspaper today?
Hugo, the general manager, is pretty much the one who runs things here. Jaime is the publisher, youngest brother of Pedro Joachim, but he is not here day to day. They work together, both of them run the paper.
Eduardo has to get back to editing the paper and I have to get to my meeting with Carlos Chamorro, then on to dinner in Granada with Ben Lugo. We promise to get together back in the States. He signs a copy of his book for me, and I drag my backpack out to the parking lot, hoping to wave down a taxi during rush hour. Walking out, I catch glimpses of Chamorro family and La Prensa history on the walls, posed photos, framed front pages. The history of modern Nicaragua, of the power of the spoken word and of the terrible cost paid for believing.
And, finally, just for you, The Who, promising, We Won’t Get Fooled Again.