25 years on ... Sandino and a song

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Comment by Paul Baker Hernández

January 1986. In the northern hills of Nicaragua, surrounded by Ronald Reagan's murderous Contras, a group of some 300 peace activists from all over the world find their path into Honduras blocked. The US and Honduran mililitaries are conducting joint exercises - no way through for anyone who believes in reconciliation and gentle peace.

Unnerved by the brooding hills and by their just-completed visit to a tiny cooperative where mothers showed pictures of their "Santos inocentes" (Holy Innocents) - five year-olds shot to pieces by Reagan's "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" using bullets provided by the US taxpayer/Oliver North's nefarious drug/Iran jugglings, the Great Peace March decides to pull back for the night.

A mile down the road, the marchers are met by more armed men - and women. This time, with relief and gratitude: the local patrol of the Sandinista People's Army has come on the double to take care of them. Within a few minutes, everyone has someplace to lay herself and her weary pack, a water truck is rolling into sight, food's a-cooking, and Sandinista sentries have been posted all round the little school the army has borrowed to make sure the exhausted "internacionalistas" can rest undisturbed.
We wrote a song to recover our nerve, based on Woody Guthrie's 500 Miles:

"Mr Reagan gave the order, said we're not to cross this border -
yet we're 5000 miles away from home.
Well, you GIs you'd better hide, for Sandino's at our side,
That's why we're 5000 miles away from home!"

Not great poetry perhaps(?), but it got us settled and back on track. And, with the sudden tropical darkness, came another song - this time filled with authentic lilting beauty. Carlos Mejia Godoy, the world-renowned "Singer of the Revolution", had dropped by. Nicaraguan to his finger-tips, despite the Contras he was visiting his mother just down the road.

Gathered in the open field behind the schoolhouse, we, young and old, from India, Scotland, the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, solidarity activists from everywhere, listened breathless as the debonair young revolutionary told us, "There are no stage lights here, but we have the stars above; there are no microphones here, but we have one another and the hills around to amplify the sound. Let's hope our sisters and brothers (the Contras) are listening; maybe they'll come in and join us."

And he sang as if his life depended on it.

"Ay, Nicaragua, Nicaraguita,
La flor ma's linda de mi querer -
O, Nicaragua, Nicaraguita,
O, lovely flower, flower of my heart ..."

It seemed a typical male love song at first, lauding the various charms of his beloved. But no, in this case, the lady in question was Nicaragua herself, and, in sharp contrast with the manic possessiveness of standard commercial "love" lyrics,

"Now that you're free, Nicaraguita - my love for you will blaze out like fire."

Fast forward

July, 2004. Nearly twenty years later, on Sunday, 18 July, there's a huge celebration of the 25th anniversary of the revolutionary Nicaragua Godoy loved so much. Standing atop the hill-fortress - which served the last Somoza as his erstwhile torture chamber and final bunker - a fifty-foot silhouette of Augusto Ce'sar Sandino broods over Managua, Nicaragua's ragtag capital city.

"Beneath the Shadow of Sandino", a gathering, thousands-strong, of poets, painters, potters, dancers, singers, musicians, people of all sorts, from all over Nicaragua comes together to celebrate the great dream of the little "General of All Free Peoples", shading everyone with his enormous hallmark hat. On stage, Carlos again, no longer quite so debonair, portly now and well into middle age, but singing with all his old fire, his life still seeming in the balance.

With all the added authority of years spent keeping the flame of revolution alive against the corrosions of music as commerce, the depredations of the "free" market and ongoing US imperialism, he tells his listeners that even still, one day, despite the tragedies forced on Nicaragua by the greedily blind and the unscrupulously powerful, "Sandino's dream will indeed become reality: Nicaragua will once again be free, once again she will `overflow with purest waters'. (Nicaragua, Nicaraguita)." His words are the more moving in that his son, Camilo, is currently an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience of the US Army for refusing to return to his unit in Iraq.

Honouring the dream

Just as on that earlier occasion under the Contra guns in the northern hills, I was there too (also rather more rotund than formerly). Now a singer in my own right, married to Fa'tima Herna'ndez, revolutionary fighter and health care worker, and serving as in-country representative of the US Nicaragua Network and the UK Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign.

Standing there together, gazing out with Sandino on this tiny nation scoured by the winds of international greed, we honoured the tens of thousands who died or were maimed during the revolution and the US imposed war of the 1980s; and we called out to the children, women and men slogging their way through yet another eternal day under the burning sun and the torrential rains, selling themselves and their other pitiful offerings amid the fumes of the insolent SUVs ferrying the "gringuitos", USwannabes, in air-conditioned luxury.

Soaring above everything, we sang, honouring the great dream, so poignantly and lovingly incarnate in Sandino himself, in El Salvador's Archbishop Romero, in Chile's Dr Salvador Allende: the determination that, "One day, at long, final, last, everyone will be able to rest, and every child shall have milk to drink, every day." And we re-committed ourselves to making that great dream reality: Not tomorrow, maybe; probably not even next year; but, soon, my people, soon.

Into the future

By the year 2020, the United States plans to import up to 18% of its fresh water from Latin America. Which tiny country has some of the world's largest deposits of "sweet water"? Nicaragua. Which country is challenging its government's attempts to sell off that water to the transnationals? Nicaragua. Which country is therefore likely to be on the list for the imposition of Reagan/Iraq-style "Democracy" yet again and in the near future? Nicaragua.

If the world's ultimate minority - the white man - and his adolescent civilization will go to illegal war and invasion over oil, "collaterally" killing thousands of innocents, can you imagine to what lengths they will go for water, the very stuff of all life here on Earth?

In insisting that water is infinitely too precious to be bought and sold, Sandino's dream comes full circle. The humble guerrillero planned to "go live, unarmed, in my community, way up above Wiwili'" once peace came. He had founded a communal cooperative based on the land there, sturdily self-reliant, growing its own food, eschewing dependency on the northern vultures and their local toadies. When the dictator had Sandino murdered (after a peace banquet) he sent his special "anti-terrorist" forces to wipe out the Wiwili' community. "They slaughtered everyone and everything, even down to the pigs," people reported.

A threat of a good example

Today, not content with their historical crimes, Somoza's descendants, the transnationals and their client governments in both Nicaragua and the United States, are slaughtering the entire planet. However, just as in those heady `80s, here comes "little Nicaragua" to stand again against the forces of destruction.

Nicaragua today is fast becoming the "threat of a good example" once more as people and communities the length and breadth of the country join forces to challenge that slaughter, putting into practice more intelligent ways of living in harmony with the earth and one another; rejecting the imposition of the Central America Free Trade (so-called) Agreement; and, with it, the theft of their ultimate treasure, water - worth infinitely more than all the gold and silver and oil in the world put together.

Bread, shelter, song, friendship

To move people to take a stand, Carlos and I sang Victor Jara's great song: "Ni Chicha Ni Limona'" (Neither Fish nor Fowl), accompanied by Luis Enrique, the other illustrious singing Godoy brother. "Ni Chica" challenges people everywhere to choose: to "stop playing with yourselves," to "get off the damn' fence!" It was probably the song that got Victor killed that first 9/11 in Chile, 1973, when terrorists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger assisted the criminal Augusto Pinochet to take bloody power.

For people like ourselves, the middle classes, the woolly liberals, Victor's demand for "Bread, shelter, song and friendship, for her and him, for me and you" was too much. Change, yes, but not if I have to change my own lifestyle. So Kissinger's men tortured him for days, they broke his hands, they riddled him with more than forty US bullets. Today, Pinochet dies an acknowledged murderer; Victor lives and sings in the hearts of people all over the world. And what he was saying is every bit as true - as liberating - today as it was when he was singing his heart out to help build up Allende's Popular Unity Movement: Choose! Together we can do it. Choose now!

Myth of choice

Choice is perhaps our greatest privilege as human beings; yet it is denied the vast majority of people on earth. And in practice, for ourselves, obedient "consumers" all, choice is our greatest tragedy. Our fabled "Democracy" - profoundly suspect ever since the US Founding Fathers ignored their wives and mothers, daughters and sisters; determined that slaves were "three-fifths human"; and systematically destroyed the indigenous First Nation cultures - nowadays seems little more than more and more choices about less and less.

For (extremely apposite) example, we spend hours pondering the ludicrous intricacies of Starbuck's pseudo-sophistication: "Veinte", "Triple Latte", "Lo-foam"; "Frappuccino", yet how many are concerned that Nicaraguan coffee workers, picking some of the world's finest beans for our jaded palates, can't afford even the smallest "Short"?

Singing "Come on now, come and join us, over here where the spuds are burning" with Carlos was stupendous, glorious: because he has made - and goes on making - a choice: to see to it, personally, that Sandino's dream comes true; and because, while so many people his age are worrying about retirement plans, he is still singing as if our lives depended on it.

Take a stand

The world is far too complex, too fragile and too precious to be left to the politicians and the other self-appointed "experts". Seize the time. Reclaim the water. Join us on the frontline. The stakes are enormous; we may not make it. But, if we choose to stand with Sandino - now, when the water wars are just beginning, while there is still a real chance to build a different, more humane, more beautiful, world - with the visionary of Wiwili' and that other beloved dreamer, we will at least have "seen the promised land", we will have glimpsed the beauty; we will have touched the glory.