My first impression of Nicaragua was neither loud nor brightly colored. It was ironically simple and sequential, folded neatly into the margins of a history book, sweat and struggle reduced to lifeless black font across the page. An easy introduction: I was the student and Nicaragua was the distant, untouchable story, a world separate from my own. But when I first visited Granada in 2010 on a trip with my university, the dusty backdrop of facts and names sprung to life.
I discovered that I was not the objective bystander I believed myself to be, but instead, unknowingly, had always been connected to this foreign land by the tangled threads of my own country’s history. The academic theme of the trip was globalization in Latin America, and most of our lectures were devoted to the history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. For those who don’t know the history, here is a brief summary of the things I learned, and for those who do know, a brief reminder:
Beginning in the 1930s, the United States supported the brutal 40-year Somoza family dictatorship. Many members of Somoza’s National Guard, best known for their ruthless killings of political prisoners, are trained in especially inhumane torture techniques at the U.S. School of the Americas. In 1979, the revolutionary Sandinistas overthrow the last Somoza in a popular uprising and launch a nation-wide effort to improve education and health services, as well as redistribute the land belonging to Somoza and his supporters.
Terrified by the idea of losing power in the region, the U.S. funds the Contra War against the Sandinistas throughout the 1980s. To circumvent Congress’ disapproval of an invasion, President Ronald Reagan secretly raises millions of dollars to aid the insurgents by illegally selling weapons to Iran. Among the Contras’ main targets are nurseries and agricultural cooperatives. The Sandinista government calls for mandatory military service to fend off the Contras, and countless young Nicaraguans are killed at war. Meanwhile, the U.S. implements a crippling economic embargo that leaves the whole country hungry, the stalks of rotted crops bowing their knees to the north as if begging for mercy. These actions are based on eradicating Soviet-supported governments in Latin America, but filed under the label “defending democracy.”
In 1984, the U.S. is charged in the International Court of Justice for illegal interference and illegal mining on Nicaragua’s shores. The U.S. never pays the reparations. In 1990, the Sandinistas are voted out of office by a country tired of drafts and dead sons. Violeta Chamorro, the newly elected president, is coincidentally the U.S.’ top choice for promoting its economic interests. Over the next 20 years, the U.S. continues to exert influence by covertly funding presidential campaigns and enforcing free-market economic policies that often favor foreign investors over Nicaraguan ones.
I felt betrayed. I was shattered to discover that my own liberty-loving country had repeatedly used democracy as the pretext for intervention on behalf of its own economic interests. On my first trip through Nicaragua, there was no sign of the sweet, golden first-world freedoms promised as a consolation prize by my country, the means dangling without ends.
Instead, I found a wounded dog chained to the train tracks and a country haunted by the chilling post-colonial howl of Spanish ghosts. I remember that trip as a jagged patchwork of images: hollow-eyed children addicted to the glue their mothers fed them to quell hunger, the waterless communities, the deafening silence of a bruise sprawled across the cheekbone.
The tenderness of my compassion was contrasted by the sharp edges of rage. I saw my country in all of these moments, and wondered what would have happened if history had been kinder, if the Sandinistas hadn’t been forced to channel all of their resources towards the war, if instead, they could have grown their own democracy, and broken the cold colonial chains of economic dependence to build a more sustainable, self-sufficient financial system on their own terms.
And so it came to be that my introduction to Nicaragua was also an introduction to myself, the other side of my country that I hadn’t met, a sinister self-portrait that stared back at me with its cold, unfriendly gaze.
When you first discover your country in bed with dishonesty, there are several possible reactions. The first is defense. Many people have justified U.S. intervention abroad by focusing on real, tangible threats, such as the confiscation of U.S. property by the Sandinistas. And while I understand the reasoning, I am stunned by the arrogance of such a claim. When did Nicaragua become an extension of the United States? Nicaragua is not ours, is not beachfront property to be bought.
This distinctly American superiority complex raises a few important questions: For whose freedom are we really fighting—our own? Freedom for U.S. multinationals to conquer whichever countries they choose? Or are we genuinely fighting for Nicaragua’s freedom from the economic dependency kindled by our narrow, neoliberal definition of “development?”
And while U.S. companies scrambled to save their land from the threat of expropriation all across Latin America, we were taught a “simplified” version of these politics at home: Communism is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy equals freedom. If we want to keep our freedom, we must eradicate communism. And it is our job, as the big brother of the twentieth century, to spread the glories of democracy to the poor and the oppressed.
This becomes the second reaction to irresponsible U.S. invasion: blind patriotism. People believed—and still believe—that it is our job, our right to intervene and provide democracy to corrupt and impoverished countries. However well intentioned, this rhetoric only continues to promote the abuse of the very values it attempts to defend. The Sandinistas were never communists. Their original commitment to public social services was built on the desperate need for basic education and health care neglected in the despotic whirlwind of Somoza’s reign.
I am embarrassed that, despite our excellent access to information, we are caught in the same primitive, uninformed political climate of which we accuse the countries we invade. The U.S.’ tragic misunderstandings of Nicaragua’s goals for a brighter future continue to haunt the country today.
The third and final response to U.S. invasions abroad greatly differs from the other approaches. In my fury, I did what most discouraged, liberal university students do: I tried to distance myself from my privilege. I tried to amputate anything that would link me to the empire, devouring history book of countries that were not my own. I studied abroad for my entire undergraduate education, trying on the loose-fitting costumes of other cultures. But this only left me with the (terribly embarrassing) false impression that I had somehow managed to crawl out of my American shell to become a liberated, enlightened world traveler. I floated aimlessly, suspended between cultures and time zones, searching for myself.
But in the last three years abroad, I have been forced to reconsider my identity as a U.S. citizen and to confront my freedoms and responsibilities as a “daughter of the empire.” I now realize that every aspect of my education, every plane ticket, insight or essay, is a product of the very privilege I spent so much time renouncing. I never used to consider myself as patriotic, as I viewed the term as a sly accomplice to dangerous political propaganda. But, thanks to the unexpected path of my education, I have learned many invaluable lessons about civic duty in this complex, globalized world.
True patriotism is not a fluttering flag or a defense strategy. Instead, it is a desire and commitment to improve your country. The United States is not an island. We are irrevocably connected to the world through immigration, economics, and the internet. As the borders of our country are warped by globalization, it is our patriotic duty to educate ourselves from both sides of the border, to not waste our privilege on ignorance. It our patriotic duty to read, to be well informed about the impact of our country on the rest of the world.
In addition to honoring the service of U.S. foreign officials, I believe it is our patriotic duty to criticize and challenge our foreign service. We must hold them accountable for their actions and ensure that the values we preach at home are upheld overseas.
It is imperative that we understand that each country has its own intricate history and cultural context, and that our narrow free-market definition of democracy is no longer—and never was—an acceptable excuse for intervention. Along with our privilege, we have to confront our national moral superiority complex. Instead of simply condescending to “backwards,” corrupt governments throughout the globe, we should use these opportunities to reflect on our own country: How has the U.S. contributed to the current poverty and corruption in Nicaragua? (Did U.S. support of certain presidential candidates influence the 1999 pact that helped to give President Ortega his current power?) On what premises were the interventions made and do we believe these actions were justified? What can we do to make sure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated? As educated and engaged citizens, it is our responsibility to place ourselves in the picture, and continue asking these questions.
Before I arrived in Nicaragua last September, curious acquaintances would ask me why I chose to come back to Nicaragua. I gave them empty-handed answers: for school, I would say, fumbling with my words. I was never sure how to condense a century of history into a single sentence, to flesh out the abstract complexities of my rage in the shallow basin of small talk.
As I return to Managua for my final semester abroad, I am much more sure of myself and of my reasons for returning. Everyday on my way to work, I pass the hill where Somoza’s National Guard pushed political prisoners into the lake to drown. I don’t cringe or cry; I am no longer the fragile, shocked student I once was. I feel that it is my patriotic duty to share these reflections with my fellow countrymen and women, to open up a conversation with those abroad and at home.
I want to introduce you to Nicaragua the way I have seen her: the afternoon symphony of rain on tin roofs, the crooked teeth of concrete jutting out from the busted lip of a side street. I want to share with you the stories of struggle and sacrifice, the tiny shards of hope planted like broken glass pieces on cement walls.
But most of all, I want to introduce you to your own country through the tangled threads of a distant history. Here is a twisted self-portrait. Be a responsible, well-informed tourist, student, missionary or businessman. Remember that it is impossible to study in another country as an objective outsider.
Read about Nicaragua. Share your opinions, but please, please read first. Don’t believe anything until you have heard the other side of the story. Care about the people here as you would care about your own, because, in the end, Nicaragua is a mirror image of your own country. I am sure you will find yourself here—be it in the soft creases of a beggar’s face, or the margins of history book. And if you don’t see your reflection staring back at you, well, then I suggest you look again.
Sarah Kaplan Gould is a student at LIU Global, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Global Studies with an emphasis on creative writing and foreign languages. She has spent her last three years traveling and studying in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and China. If you are interested, she has an awesome list of excellent books about Nicaragua she would like to share with you, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.