It was near Rio Blanco, Nicaragua, that I lay awake all one night in a hammock in a small wooden hut, listening to the sound of gunfire rumbling through the mountains like thunder. This is my most vivid memory of that time. It was 1987, the height of the contra war, and the country was in turmoil. I was visiting Nicaragua with Witness for Peace, along with 20 other people from Wisconsin and Minnesota.Br. Jose “Chepe” Barnett, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus who coordinates the Milwaukee-based Volunteer Missionary Movement’s volunteers and assists with various community development projects, stands in la Garnacha with Carmelo Ramirez, a young artisan, who carves a block of wood with a machete. (Submitted photo by Tom Boswell)

Last fall, I returned to Nicaragua as part of a delegation of 10 with the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM). Based in the Milwaukee area, VMM is a national, ecumenical organization with roots in the Catholic social justice tradition that recruits, trains and sends lay missioners to accompany the poor in Central America.

I was curious to see how people’s lives had changed during this 27-year interim, whether for better or worse. But I returned a week later with more questions than answers.

During the war in the 1980s, it was all about survival. Faith, courage and solidarity seemed to be what sustained the people. Today, the challenge involves moving beyond survival, but what are the next steps, and what will sustain the people?

Early in our visit, we drove into the mountains, 65 miles north of Managua, to the town of San Nicolás. We visited the secondary school where two VMM volunteers, David and Sarah, teach English and assist with other community projects. There are no books, computers or a school library, but the students appear bright, attentive, sociable and spirited. Six of the girls show off their English by performing an American pop song with a dance they have arranged.

School even on Saturdays

Idalia Lopez, the school’s director, greeted us in her cluttered office, which appears to serve many purposes. She is a modest but determined woman who started as a primary teacher and later earned a Master’s in Education by attending classes on Saturdays. Lopez was raised on a farm in San Nicolás and her father was killed by Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard. Five uncles were also killed during the dictatorship and two more in the contra war.

Because of her degree and commitment, there is a high school, and because of the high school, youth from 30 rural communities surrounding San Nicolás can travel by horseback to attend school here on Saturdays.

Most children in Nicaragua don’t advance beyond sixth grade, but fourth grade is the norm in the rural areas. In fact, Nicaragua’s high school enrollment rate is among the lowest in the world. But things were much worse before 1979. 

“There was no elementary school in San Nicolás back then, just one teacher giving classes in a house,” José “Chepe” Barnett informed me. He is a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus who coordinates VMM’s volunteers and assists with various community development projects.

He came here from the United States just after the Sandinista revolution in 1979, answering the call of a Nicaraguan bishop for volunteers to accompany the people for three months. Br. José has stayed for 35 years. 

“Interesting, the way of the Lord,” he said.  

Literacy campaign unites country

Br. José was among the 60,000 – high school and university students and teachers – who joined the national literacy campaign of 1980, traveling to the mountains to teach the campesinos to read and write.

Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal, 80, continues to work with a network of Jesuit schools in Latin America. (Submitted photo by Tom Boswell)

“The literacy campaign was, without any doubt, the best experience in my life,” Br. José said. “It was just amazing; the whole country was united. It created a solidarity that even today hasn’t died out.”

Later we met in Managua with Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal, now 80, who was recruited by the Sandinistas to lead the literacy campaign. He told dramatic stories about how the young teachers were threatened by the contras, who killed seven of them. But no one left, and later, 40,000 more enlisted to spread literacy among urban residents. The illiteracy rate plummeted from 56 to 12 percent in the first year.

“For me, these are the biggest heroes of our country,” Fr. Cardenal told us. “Such strength and courage. It was the most beautiful act of the revolution.”

Contras begin war of terror

But then came the 1980s and the contras. Funded by the U.S. and trained by the CIA, the counter-revolutionary forces crossed into Nicaragua from base camps in Honduras and Costa Rica. They harassed local militias, burned crops and destroyed the country’s rural infrastructure. Mostly, they attacked campesinos in what became a war of terror: torture, killing, kidnapping and wholesale massacre of civilians was the modus operandi of the contras.

Fr. Cardenal recalled it as “a terrible time. There was great fear that we were going to be totally destroyed by the contras, supported by the largest superpower in the universe.”

An astronomical inflation rate also battered the country. Fr. Cardenal carries a $5 million Córdoba bill to remind him of that time. Cardenal read to us from a journal he kept during those years:

“Whatever happens, I will continue to be faithful to the end, to the poor of Nicaragua, to the poor of Latin America, to the cause of justice, the struggle against all types of exploitation, the struggle for fraternity and love. I really don’t fear death as long as I continue to live with dignity and give myself to these values which are the absolutes in my life.”

Two San Nicolás primary school students sit in the park. Most children in Nicaragua don’t advance beyond sixth grade. (Submitted photo by Tom Boswell)He wrote those words in May 1987, just a few months before I arrived with the Witness for Peace group, when the streets were full of brightly colored billboards proclaiming: Queremos Paz con Dignidad (We Want Peace with Dignity).

Our group had traveled in the Paiwas and Rio Blanco region, the very center of Nicaragua, where the mountains meet the jungle. Seeking refuge from the terror, people fled to asentamientos (resettlement communities) or to Paiwas, which swelled from 500 to more than 2,500 people in a few years. We stayed in simple peasant homes in Paiwas, sleeping in hammocks while pigs rooted around on the earthen floor beneath us. We visited the asentamientos and slept in the open, while militia kept guard all night. 

Priest shares litany of horror

We met Fr. Jim Feltz, a Milwaukee native and pastor of the Cristo Rey Parish in Paiwas. His parish included 36 “chapels” sprinkled throughout the mountains, and he made his rounds on mule or horseback, never knowing if he would return or not. For five years or more he scrupulously documented the atrocities perpetrated by the contras. 

Fr. Feltz told us of Cristina, a 10-year-old girl, whose mother was a catechist with one of the chapels. Cristina was visiting her uncles when contras arrived. They killed her uncles and a neighbor, and then laid her on the ground so one of the contras could practice his marksmanship. He fired four bullets into her body but, miraculously, she survived. Feltz later noted that the day he spoke to Cristina, after the attack, the U.S. Senate approved $19 million more in aid to the contras.

Fr. Feltz’ litany of horror seemed endless. In another incident, contras raided a village and killed nine; a 14-year-old girl was raped and decapitated. They tossed her body in a brook and placed her head on the road at the entrance to the village. 

We also met Susana “Chanita” Castro, whose husband had been a local judge and Delegate of the Word for 12 years. The contras killed him in 1982, months before her 11th child was born. Susana, who took her husband’s place as a Delegate of the Word, also lost two brothers, a sister, and two other relatives to the war.

New Nicaragua beacon for tourists

But this is a new Nicaragua, filled with smiling, exuberant children like those at the San Nicolás school, their lives long removed from the time of terror. Still, I can’t help but wonder what ghosts still lurk in the minds and souls of their elders, people like Idalia Lopez, who were young back then.

This new Nicaragua, with its spectacular landscapes and natural wonders, has become a beacon for tourists. We visited one popular destination, la Garnacha, a mountainous village, barely accessible via a steep and bumpy dirt road. When we arrived, a group of volunteers from France was busy constructing and carrying trusses for a new building to accommodate the growth generated by the tourist traffic.

Sixteen families acquired this land through the Sandinista government in 1985 to form an agricultural cooperative. When Violeta Chamorro defeated the Sandinistas in the 1990 election, the land reform laws changed. Many people, including those in la Garnacha, opted to own their land individually. But the farmers here still do much work communally. 

In the days of Somoza, campesinos in the mountains were largely isolated from each other and the rest of the country. But the contra war forced them to live and work together, and the revolution provided access to land and a vastly improved infrastructure. It occurred to me that la Garnacha, with its organic farm, a successful cheese-making business and other ventures, would once have been a prime target for the contras.

Before leaving the village, we met with Victoria Bucardo Castillo in a handsome round church built about 15 years ago. Castillo, a former midwife and mother of 14 children, has two passions: her Catholic faith and teaching her community to use natural medicines. She has been a Delegate of the Word and Eucharistic minister for 28 years.

Late in the week, we traveled 30 miles south of Managua to Granada, a charming colonial city founded by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba of Spain in 1524. Purportedly the first European city in mainland America, it was here that Fr. Cardenal and his older brother, Ernesto, the famous poet-priest, were born into an upper-class family. Also in Granada we met a man who has dedicated his life to helping others live in dignity. 

Spanish entrepreneur employs blind, deaf

Antonio Prieto, known as Tio Antonio (Uncle Tony), is an entrepreneur who emigrated from Spain with a dream of opening a restaurant. But most of the people he met when he arrived were deaf or blind youth. He tried to help them, but soon discovered it was a challenging task to find jobs for young people in Nicaragua who could not hear, speak or see.

A youth makes a hammock at Tio Antonio’s hammock factory in Granada, a workshop that employs 38 disabled young people and is self-sustaining. (Submitted photo by Tom Boswell)

Prieto opened a hammock factory to create jobs for disabled workers but encountered major obstacles. The city of Masaya, only 20 kilometers from Granada, is renowned worldwide for its hammocks, so the competition was tough.

“We made the worst hammocks in the world,” recalled Prieto, “they were really, really ugly.” 

But tourists bought the hammocks anyway, which infuriated Prieto. He wanted dignity for his young employees, not sympathy or charity. 

“I realized I was creating a monster, a kind of zoo. So I closed the store, and we committed ourselves to make the best hammocks in the world,” he said.

Six years later, the hammock workshop employs 38 disabled young people and is self-sustaining. Last year, they created a hammock for Pope Francis.

“A blind young man did that hammock. It was an incredibly important moment for us. At first, nobody wanted us and then, all of a sudden, we were on CNN and 23 other TV stations because we were the ones who made the papal hammock,” he said.

Three years ago, after more unsuccessful attempts to interest local businesses in hiring people with disabilities, Prieto opened Café de las Sonrisas (Café of Smiles), where we dined on chicken burritos and fruit juice.

Poverty still prevalent

“In a city with 80 hotels and more than 150 restaurants, we had to open our own business, and only hire deaf young men and women, just to show other businesses you can do it,” Prieto explained. “And this project, the coffee shop, is the one I’m most proud of, because the growth of these young men and women has been incredible.”

Despite all the accomplishments of both the early and later Sandinista administrations – low-income housing, education, infrastructure improvements – Nicaragua is still a poor country  the poorest in the hemisphere after Haiti. Almost three-fourths of the population lives on $2 a day.

All four of VMM’s missioners in Nicaragua teach English because, if you can speak good English, you may land a job in a call center, which pays much better than one of the textile factories in the “Free Trade Zone.”

But Nicaragua is also a peaceful country, relatively speaking. When I was here in 1987, it seemed that nearly everyone was toting an AK-47. This time I did not see one gun. Nicaragua’s homicide rate is the lowest in Latin America.

When I asked Fr. Cardenal why so few Nicaraguan youth were fleeing across the border, compared to those from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, he responded that there was much less violence and presence of youth gangs than in the other countries. 

“I think this is a fruit of the revolution,” he added. “It left values all over the place.”

In the early years of the revolution, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal served as Minister of Culture and Fr. Fernando Cardenal as Minister of Education. Both were sanctioned by the Vatican for serving in the government. Both later denounced Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista leaders for alleged corruption. 

Fr. Ernesto, once a disciple and close friend of Thomas Merton at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, appears to have retired from public life to devote himself to writing. He will turn 90 soon.

Fr. Fernando is still active, working with Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy), a network of Jesuit schools in Latin America that seeks to educate the poorest of the poor.

“I haven’t been in very good health,” he said, “but I continue to work and it’s for the poor, and that’s where I’ll be until I fall, until God wants me.”

On a tour of the U.S. a few years ago to promote a book of poems, Fr. Ernesto was quoted as saying: “In the short term, I have no hope.” But a passage from the cover poem of his book suggests he harbors better thoughts about the long term:

all emerged from the Big Bang
cosmos not finished yet.

This is all that can be said for sure about Nicaragua. The Creation is still in process, and the revolution, certainly, is far from finished.