Writers Views

John Brentlinger, the author of THE BEST OF WHAT WE ARE: REFLECTIONS ON THE
NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION, has recently completed a sequel entitled THE CIRCLE
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

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.

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,

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 café 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

In support of both my broader and narrower claims, the historian Howard Zinn
“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.”