John Brentlinger

The late John Brentlinger, friend of the Newton/San Juan Sister City Project and author of  The Best of What We Are: Reflections on the Nicaraguan Revolution, was at the time of his death completing a sequel entitled The Circle is Unbroken: U.S. and Nicaraguan Communities in Solidarity. The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the new book.

People from the United States traveled to Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution from a variety of motives. Many shared with the Sandinistas a passion for a new social order that was independent of U.S. control, and more caring for the poor and more equal and democratic. Others came from curiosity, to observe and learn. Others came in anguish to say “Not in my name!” – to protest and oppose in some way the campaign of sabotage and death that was organized and supported by our government. All were changed. All carry within themselves an indelible mark from their experience in Nicaragua, of courage and idealism and hope. In the absence of caring governments, we and our Nicaraguan friends have no resource but ourselves–our skill and determination, our passion for justice, and our love of Nicaragua.

We have to ask: Is Nicaragua so special? Is it so different from the myriad other places in the world where people are poor and suffering? I have to say, it is different, for us North Americans, because our histories have been intertwined for over 150 years. The Nicaraguans have known us since the days of William Walker, who in 1855 tried to turn Nicaragua into a slave colony of the United States, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a fortune during the gold rush days transporting people from New York to California via Nicaragua. And in this century, after 40 years of the worst dictatorship in Latin America, installed and supported by our government, they rose up against us. Not to attack or terrorize us, mind you. just to get us off their backs. Then they did something marvelous (and maybe unprecedented). They asked for help from the people of the United States. They invited us, and welcomed us as people in spite of what our government had done and was doing. How could we refuse? We had been invited and we were drawn back again and again by the people who lived with such hope and faith. We witnessed a society in change, a society no longer ruled by greed. The cynics and pessimists of history were refuted. Society can change; we can overcome what Albert Einstein called the predatory phase of human history culminating in untrammeled capitalism.

The struggles and the connections shared between North Americans and Nicaraguans are alive and growing. This book is a reflection on how and why this work is continuing and growing in interest and importance. My starting point is my own experience, but I’m one among a wide variety of thousands of people, from different backgrounds, with different interests, and all say that their connection to Nicaragua is one of the most meaningful parts of their lives. This multiplicity of people and concerns and activities needs recognition and reflection. It is historically new, and historically revolutionary.

I use the term solidarity as an inclusive label, though the work and inter- relationships that presently exist between people and communities in the U.S. and Nicaragua have evolved significantly over the past twenty-five years. In the 1980’s U.S.-Nicaragua solidarity was focused on assisting the Sandinista revolution in its struggle to survive. Solidarity organizations brought material and moral support to the revolution, and struggled here at home against our government’s efforts to destroy it. Although the U.S. government, led by President Reagan and then President George H. Bush, was able to defeat the Sandinistas and restore right-wing control in Nicaragua, the work of the Nicaragua solidarity movement had important positive results. Besides playing an educative and political role as a social justice movement at home, it built to an unprecedented extent relationships between people in the U.S. and people in a Latin American country. It was a new form of solidarity in that it was based upon and largely energized by personal relationships. It was historically unique for being a protest movement in which ordinary North Americans in large numbers – around 100,000 – traveled to a foreign country to directly witness the effects of U.S. intervention and unite with foreigners in opposing their government. As a result it may have saved Nicaragua from a U.S. military invasion.

The electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990 meant that the Nicaraguan government became newly aligned with corporate interests and U.S. government policies. The Sandinista priorities were abandoned, and programs in areas such as land reform, education and health fell victim to government indifference or active hostility. Nicaragua lost its international importance as an example of a society struggling to remake itself independently of U.S. control and in accordance with socialist values. It became, in contrast, emblematic of the devastation that happens to a small country that dares to act against the interests of the empire.

Solidarity activities and organizations either died out or individuals and groups with a long-term commitment to Nicaragua had to radically rethink and restructure themselves in response to the new situation. Witness For Peace and The Nicaragua Network resolved to continue, and adopted broader, long-term agendas that united with the Nicaraguan left in opposing U.S. policies that concern all Latin American countries, such as debt and structural adjustment programs, privatization, maquiladoras, and the misleadingly named free trade policies. Of the myriad sister-city groups and faith-based organizations, some faded away, some struggled ahead with a smaller base in their U.S. communities, some continued and increased their pre-1990 level of activity. From the Nicaragua Network on down, those groups that sustained their solidarity connection with Nicaragua were able to do so because of the concrete and personal connections that members had with friends and communities in Nicaragua. Ties had been formed, and people were not going to turn their backs on their Nicaraguan comrades and friends when the need for connection, on both sides, was even greater than before. It is important and relevant to stress that the need was felt on both sides, because although the victory of the Reagan and Bush governments was certainly most acutely felt by Nicaraguans, it was also a defeat for the hopes of many North Americans who were inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution and who saw it as an opening for the future of democracy and social justice in Latin America and the U.S. itself.

After the 1990 electoral defeat Daniel Ortega announced that the revolution was not at an end, that there would continue to be “government from below.” The government from below idea was finally abandoned, but not the idea, in many for ‘Revolution From Below.” This continues through the work of the Sandinista party, Sandinista led trade unions and community organizations, Sandinista elected officials on many levels throughout the country, and many other progressive forces, especially students, campesinos, women, the disabled, veterans, both ex-Contra and ex-Sandinista, and other progressive forces. And though conditions in Nicaragua deteriorated with astounding rapidity, the revolution stayed alive in the work of many Nicaraguans, and many North Americans joined in creating new projects and non-governmental institutions. People who had learned how to organize and had experienced international connectedness, got together to continue the values and objectives of the revolution. And the people involved are not only the old Sandinistas and the old internationalists. Many young people, many new people of all ages and backgrounds, find themselves drawn into these projects and these communities. I see these groups and communities as growing networks of international relations that are revolutions in process. Molecular revolutions, you could say, growing within a global context of domination.

There are several important ways in which contemporary solidarity communities differ from the forms of solidarity that were most common in the 1980’s. Since they lack the support of the Nicaraguan government, they have a more democratic, grassroots base in Nicaragua. They are not as bound by government priorities or policies, or dependent on government financing, and since they are not identified with a political party they transcend the vicissitudes of electoral politics. As a result, the activists and organizers, Nicaraguan and North American, tend to have a more realistic, long-term commitment to the work of the organization and to their solidarity community’s development. A more long-term perspective means that we are not working simply to support a specific government in its struggle against another government, or for any other specific political agenda. These solidarity communities now evolve organically on the basis of actual connections between the people involved and the quality of the work they do. This focuses attention on the quality of these connections. If the solidarity community is well organized, truly democratic, directly responsive to community needs, in Nicaragua and in the States, the work will support the member’s loyalty and commitment. Self- organized, democratic participation in community life builds bonds between people and nurtures the motivation to continue and do more. Even the smallest accomplishments are deeply satisfying – especially, I might add, to us alienated, self-concerned North Americans. The means-ends way of thinking becomes less dominant, and the work become more of an end in itself. Marx made the same point writing about French workers: that when they first organized it was for specific goals, but a new end was created: the social nature of the process itself.

There are several general trends in the North American/Nicaraguan solidarity communities that have evolved since the 1980’s. First, a longer-term commitment allows for a broader perspective that can include every aspect of life, and as a result contemporary solidarity communities give greater emphasis to comprehensive development as opposed to focusing on a single need. Second, since the solidarity communities don’t have government support, they tend to look for solutions to problems and needs that are more innovative and that promote self-sufficiency. In agriculture, for instance, there is more stress on crop diversification and organic methods. Third, groups are much more conscious at present of the political character of the processes of working together. North Americans who have relationship with a Nicaraguan community develop the attitude of working with people, as equals, as opposed to working for people from a standpoint of privilege. Nicaraguan participants are encouraged to become more active as decision makers and organizers. Both Nicaraguans and North Americans are more aware of the growing importance of independent, non-governmental organizations in making social change, worldwide.

These communities, which mean so much to their immediate participants, I describe as molecular revolutions. Yet revolutions as traditionally conceived and experienced, begin with the destruction of an old social form, the existing economic and political arrangement, and then try to create a new one. Historically, while many revolutions have been pretty successful at the first stage, the destructive one, they have foundered badly in the second stage. By contrast, communities that connect through solidarity work begin with the second stage, the stage of creating new political forms, organizations that are egalitarian and democratic. These communities grow, thrive or die out, within the context of a dominant, oppressive form. How do they affect the dominant form, and how does it affect them? In Nicaragua there is a wealth of experience that comes to mind, that tends to feed speculation about these questions. For instance, in Leon, Nicaragua’s second largest city, 70% of the city government’s investment in social and economic development projects comes from NGO’s. The city government, led by a Sandinista mayor, works with many solidarity communities on basic needs issues, such as education, health, and employment. One palpable result is a very low rate of crime and delinquency – Leon claims to be the safest city in Central America. This is in striking contrast with Managua, which is infested with gangs and extremely dangerous, and until recently has had a conservative government hostile to solidarity communities. Take as another instance, the widely publicized struggle of the Mulukuku solidarity community with the corrupt government of Arnoldo Aleman. Aleman tried to expel Dorothy Granada from the country and close Mulukuku’s clinic, on the false charge that they gave abortions and only would treat Sandinista supporters. His government was deluged with letters from the U.S., including one signed by 32 members of Congress. A demonstration of over 10,000 people marched in protest in Managua, and the Nicaraguan courts ruled against Aleman. Did this struggle contribute to the forces that led to Aleman’s expulsion from the government and imprisonment? Or, consider the work here in the States by solidarity people for debt relief for Nicaragua, in opposition to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which has contributed importantly to its reduction and will possibly help to the eliminate most of Nicaragua’s debt. Then there is the fact that solidarity communities are evolving within the phenomenon of global networking. Many of them have web sites and communicate with their counterparts in Nicaragua or the United States on the Internet. One group I write about raises funds for its prosthetics clinic and provides computer training to university students and members of the community, through its own Internet cafe in Leon. We could say that solidarity communities are embryonic global villages. They are a way in which globalization can have a human face.

In the chapters to follow I describe six active, growing solidarity communities. Though quite different from each other, in their history, their geographic location, their size, and the nature of their work, the same basic political framework is present in all: self-organizing Nicaraguans and North Americans joining to create and sustain a permanent and growing array of community development projects. I also include a general chapter in which I describe four national organizations, a dozen more local ones, and cite references to around a hundred other groups, many of which could just as easily have been chosen as sterling examples.

I focus on the achievements of solidarity communities and the evolution of their thinking and practice. I place particular stress on the personal qualities, motivations, values, and in a word the spiritual qualities, of the founders and activists, because their personalities seems to a remarkable extent to form the “personalities” of the organizations, and so clearly show forth the intellectual and spiritual meaning of solidarity work. This is not an “objective” study, rather it combines analysis and description – which I hope is objective and accurate – with judgment and celebration, because my purpose is both to document and to encourage and further promote the work I have observed, for its thoughtfulness, effectiveness, and deep human commitment toward creating a better world.

I conclude the book with an Appendix in which I review the history of U.S.- Nicaraguan relations, which sets the historical context for our present situation for those readers who are unfamiliar with this history or would like a brief refresher. Readers may want to begin with this Appendix. I’m aware that to refer to solidarity communities as molecular revolutions is to imply that they have wider social significance than simply improving the lives of small groups of people. I believe that they do. They provide valuable experience in the efforts to create new forms of human relationship, especially across boundaries of class, race, and nationality. They are powerful incubators and educators of social activists. They stimulate opposition and support struggle against the dominant forms of oppression. But they also need no wider justification. To most people the experience of working in a solidarity community is meaningful and fulfilling in itself, indeed it is a major source of meaning in our lives. It is beautiful work. It is interesting and challenging. It demands and nurtures the best of what we are.

In support of both my broader and narrower claims, the historian Howard Zinn writes: “What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability…Looking at this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible…That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, ,patience… Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment…Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world…to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives…If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”


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