I had a flight to Panama in the morning, and was finishing my work in Managua. But there was an opportunity to meet with Ben Lugo in Granada. So I finished my interview with broadcasting icon Carlos Chamorro and boarded a ‘chicken bus’ for my dinner with Benjamin. After a rollicking bus ride, I sat in the vernanda of a grand old hotel overlooking the Parque Central, the same spot where Tenneseean mercenary William Walker once roamed, burning the city to the ground after his dreams of being emperor of Central America was dashed. Ben was late but I didn’t mind as I sipped a beer on beautiful, sultry evening. A scantily-clad prostitute periodically approached, each time lowering her price ($20!). Finally, Ben arrived and we went to a deserted outdoor restaurant for an unhealthy dinner of nachos, beer and vodka. Below are parts one and two of our three hour chat. The transcription is the work of new Afterparty intern Anaka Allen.
Benjamin Lugo is a democracy activist, a former Sandinista who has seen Nicaragua struggle through a quarter century of political growing pains. The United States has been involved in Nicaraguan politics for more than a century. With support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, Sandinista revolutionaries launched a guerrilla war against US-backed president Anastasio Somoza Debayle, overthrowing him in 1979. President Jimmy Carter cut off long-standing economic and military aid to Somoza in 1977 because of his widely-condemned human rights record.
Ben begins his analysis of American intervention and its effects in Nicaragua by introducing how the relationship of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas with the FMLN of El Salvador.
Lugo: In 1979 there was a historical opportunity to have a different relationship with the United States. And then I think that because of all that was happening here in the Sandinista regime against private enterprise, against all these people that were not part of the Somoza dictatorship, I think that worked against El Salvador (so) people would not help or support the FMLN.
The FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, was a left-wing political party in El Salvador, comprised of multiple leftist guerrilla groups.
Lugo: Because the private sector in El Salvador and the United States said, “This is happening in Nicaragua.” So that actually was a catalyst against the FMLN in El Salvador; what was happening here back in 1980. And then what happened was terrible because all of this started to decrease efficiency and production, and then more and more resources were committed to war efforts against the contras, which was a small group in Honduras but then—
BG: So are you suggesting that the Sandinistas used the contras as a way to create a paranoid justification for more radicalization?
BG: Going from a bitter, brutal, bloody guerrilla life in the mountains, with that kind of camaraderie and success, [to] then suddenly [having] to govern; that’s pretty boring. You have to compromise and fix potholes, you have to do all the boring administrative stuff. These twenty-year old kids who have been the commanders of some large area, they’re neither trained nor interested in doing that. So to say, now we’re back, we have this common enemy…
Lugo: It was more exciting to say that, but it was terrible for the country. Because then you started getting into the Cold War with two big players, with the United States. Then this Nicaragua, instead of learning from the Cuban failures — there are good things in Cuba, education and health care for the kids, that we should take.
BG: Even take some of their doctors.
Lugo: See if they can help us. But to go and ally yourself with that terrible, state-owned, state-directed economy, is terrible. So the country started failing economically and then the war effort made it worse. It’s not only the war that created all this chaos. It was the attitude of confiscating everything, everything becomes state-owned. We don’t need a new war to ruin the country, that made it worse, of course. But [there were] already a lot of problems back in ’83-’84, before the war.
In 1981, President Reagan withdrew aid to Nicaragua when the Sandinistas would not end their support of the rebel forces in El Salvador. The Reagan administration viewed the Sandinistas as a dangerous political enemy because of their interaction with communist Cuba under Fidel Castro and the Soviet bloc. The Reagan administration, led by the CIA, began covertly assisting anti-Sandinista fighters, the contras, claiming that their intention was to disrupt the flow of arms to revolutionaries in El Salvador. By late 1982, the United States was funding and managing operations of the contras. President Reagan claimed that America’s goal was to ensure that Nicaragua did not spread violence and rebellion to its Latin American neighbors, specifically El Salvador.
BG: So you’re talking about ’83-’84. It’s my general understanding, that in the beginning, the contras were created out of whole cloth by the United States CIA. They supported the soldiers in Honduras, gave them money, gave them ideological talking points, gave them direction, told them what to do, brought them together in Miami to create a committee.
L: I have to be honest with you, no matter what Reagan or the United States did, if there were no people willing to fight, there was nothing they could do. There were a lot of people willing to fight against the Sandinistas.
B: The Guardia Nacional.
L: No! That was only a small nucleus of maybe two to three thousand people at the most. It’s just an educated guess. I didn’t count them, [laughs] I didn’t like them either. But then from there to eighteen thousand? Something happened there. There were no more National Guardsmen. That was it.
B: So would you say that if the United States did not make that effort—and I wasn’t meaning to demean the broad base of support based on all the issues you talked about that caused people to want to join the contras or one of the contra factions—but would you say that if the United States did nothing, the contras, the counter-revolution would have still happened?
L: Oh yeah, maybe not the way it happened, but a lot of disaffected people, people that were kicked out of their own small plots of land—
B: And then you have the Miskito Indians. Reagan went on television and said, “I am a Miskito Indian.”
L: Yeah. “Yo soy un freedom fighter,” but that was later. Those Miskito Indians did not even know who the CIA was.
B: And my understanding is that the Miskitos had a lot of autonomy under Somoza, so they really didn’t have a lot of problems with him.
L: No, they did. They were taking down the forest, were cutting up trees, this and that.
The Miskito Indians are a tribe that inhabits the northeastern coast of Nicaragua near Puerto Cabezas. During the Sandinista revolution, many of the tribe sided with the contras.
Lugo claims that the Nicaraguan people suffered great disappointment during the Sandinista regime because they betrayed their original intentions of dismantling the practices of the Somoza dictatorship, ushering in a new government focused on unifying Nicaragua through Marxist-Leninist ideology.
L: [There was a] change in the direction of the revolution [that] was catastrophic to the country. It led us to a war because, without us knowing, they were trying to confiscate areas, in the rural areas to make [room for] enormous foreign projects, for sugar cane, etc. They were displacing all these small peasants from the land, so these people started fleeing to Honduras and that’s where the contras got bigger and bigger. It’s not like they were imported from Afghanistan. They were Nicaraguans that were displaced from the Sandinista repression.
And then the Miskito Indians, los Miskitos in Puerto Cabeza, they started organizing themselves because they said things were going to be very different with the new revolution, but they started being persecuted too, all of a sudden in like 1981/1982. By that time, the economy was coming down. No political parties were allowed.
Some things were done in a short period of time, including the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, that was not denounced by the Sandinista regime. I said, “This is not what we fought for, this is not what we wanted, this is not what all my friends died for.”
Another terrible [betrayal] was that the former Somoza regime, the leaders, lived in these big houses, and then the Sandinistas came to live in those same houses, with the same swimming pools and sometimes they even kept maids and drivers. So that was terrible because if you are preaching to be humble and to be for the people, and that you are going to save money so that people can live better, and then all of a sudden you go out and live in the same houses…It was a continuous degradation from the original 1978 proposition.
L: This revolution was so much my revolution that I never fought against it afterwards. So I was never part of the contras. For one thing, I resented the fact that some of the leaders were part of the Somoza National Guard. We have nothing to do with them, you know. And then the United States being so openly supporting it with Reagan, you know.
B: More of the same.
L: During these years in 1980/81, Doña Violeta [spoke against] the regime; Alfonso Robelo too. Another experience that I lived, was in Nandaime. Robelo called for a citizens movement in Nandaime against what we were seeing: the overtaking of the revolution by these radical people. So he said we are going to march in Nandaime. It was on a Sunday. That was the first time I saw the Sandinista army with guns opposing the people. That was marked in my mind. I saw this and thought, “It’s almost the National Guard, again.” It was terrible what happened to me that Sunday morning.
B: So talk about the 80s, you said you didn’t join the contras, tell me more about your personal evolution from 1979 to 1989. I mean, you’ve already talked about how you were seeing certain things that were troubling to you.
L: In 1982, a little brother of mine had this terrible accident in Atlanta. He suffered a stroke at 16 years old. So I had to go urgently to the hospital in Atlanta. When I left the country, they said that I had fled the country, and they knew it was because of this reason, because of my brother. So they decided to confiscate our properties: my family’s, mine, whatever we had. It was kind of ironic, having been part of this revolution, you know.
B: Were they targeting you for any reason?
L: [It was to counter] the bourgeoisie. Because of this decision, they wanted everything to be state-owned. So, they said I had fled so they took over the company, houses—bite by bite, ruining the country, the economy. It was a no-win situation because you are degrading your productive system, inside the country, and then you have a war that was financed by the United States, by Reagan. But there were no mercenaries, in the sense that, they were all Nicaraguan people that were disaffected by this regime. So you could have all the money in the world, but if you have no people willing to fight, the money sits there. Period. So it was this combination of factors. Then by becoming pro-Cuba, you were actually confronting the United States.
After the Sandinistas took control of the Nicaraguan government, they became more radical in the eyes of both the opposition and supporters. New economic policies included confiscating, occupying and redistributing properties, businesses and finances. At one point, they began to restrict the press. Parts three and four of the conversation will be posted shortly.