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Delegation of Kansas students visits Central America

by Marc Becker

A group of ten students from Kansas spent their Christmas break visiting Central America in order to view first-hand the current political situation in the region. The delegation visited El Salvador and Nicaragua on a two-week Witness for Peace delegation. In El Salvador, the delegation visited several repopulated communities, including the sister communities of Topeka and Wichita. In Nicaragua, the group visited Quilalí, the site of recent armed re-contra activity. In both countries, the delegation delivered school supplies which Kansans had collected.

With the recent signing of peace accords in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the political situation has changed dramatically in both countries. The trip presented the students with a much deeper understanding of the current conditions in the region. The delegation also brought back ideas for projects that Kansans can work on, including developing a sister city relationship with a village in El Salvador and supporting a special education program in Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, Tim Lohrentz, former Newton Area Peace Center coordinator who is currently working in El Salvador with CRIPDES, the Christian Committee for the Displaced of El Salvador, organized the delegation. During the five days in the country, the group visited Las Talpetates, Topeka's Companion Community, La Bermuda (Comunidad Marianella Garcia Villas), Wichita's sister city, and met with the leadership of ANIS, the National Association of Salvadoran Indigenous.

In Las Talpetates, the delegation met with community and regional leadership. The students delivered school supplies and Christmas cards from Topeka, and brought back several messages for the people in Topeka. The group then joined La Bermuda (Comunidad Marianella Garcia Villas), Wichita's Sister City, for their New Year's celebration and delivered supplies which people in Wichita had collected.
La Bermuda is neighbored by two other villages: Las Americas and El Papaturro. The three villages share a common history. All were bombed out by the Salvadoran army in the 1980s, and most of the people fled across the border to refugee camps in Honduras. Several years ago, the people organized a movement to reclaim their villages for themselves. They have suffered at the hands of the Salvadoran military, but have emerged strong and victorious out of the experience.

People in Hesston and Newton are interested in fostering a sister-city relationship with Las Americas. The delegation visited El Papaturro and was impressed by the level of organization in the community. El Papaturro currently does not have a sister-city relationship, but is interested in developing one with a North American community. People in Lawrence or Manhattan (or the two together) could develop such a relationship. There is a potential for pursuing concrete projects such as directly importing coffee from El Papaturro to Kansas, and providing a women's artisan cooperative with a direct outlet for selling their embroidered shirts.

The three neighboring communities of La Bermuda, El Papaturro, and Las Americas share common needs. For example, the communities are in need of a truck to take their agricultural produce to market. The people of Kansas, working together, could send a truck (perhaps filled with school supplies or other materials) to the three communities.This would not only be a direct aid to the people in the villages, but it could also form a conduit through which to organize people in Kansas and make people aware of the realities of Central Americans.

After five days in El Salvador, the delegation continued on to Nicaragua where Witness for Peace volunteers Megan Gottemoeller and Mary Wilcox prepared the nine-day visit. The group met with several officials in the capital city of Managua, but the heart of the trip was a six-day visit to Estelí, Quilalí, and a small cooperative El Coco in the northern part of the country. This region has seen a lot of recent re-contra (former U.S. backed contra rebels who have re-armed themselves) activity, including two ambushes on the road we took a couple days previous to our visit.

Quilalí is close to El Chipote, General Augusto César Sandino's base in the 1920s when he fought against the U.S. Marine occupation of his country. The delegation was greeted by the Quilalí cultural committee complete with a full program put on by local kids. The students met with the local UNO-run government, which appeared to be more interested in installing a cable TV system than responding to human needs. In a meeting with the regional Ministry of Education office it was shocking to see the extent that the UNO government has re-written Nicaraguan history. A history textbook ended in 1978 with the statement that the former U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza fell because of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro's death (not a word about the Sandinistas or any popular organizations).

The delegation also visited El Coco, a strongly pro-Sandinista cooperative which has been almost completely ignored by the current UNO government. The local community leadership impressed upon the delegation the desperate needs of their community. Developing a sister-city relationship with El Coco is another project which Kansans could undertake. People in Quilalí are also developing a Special Education Project, which would be a worthwhile project to support.

With the signing of recent peace accords in El Salvador and the end of official U.S. support for the contra rebels in Nicaragua, the political landscape has changed dramatically in Central America. In an ironic and rather perverse sort of way, however, El Salvador's popular movement appears to be in a better position after a decade of civil war and repression by military forces than that in Nicaragua after a decade of guidance by the sympathetic Sandinista government. Vertical leadership appears to have undermined the development of strong community-based grassroots organizations in Nicaragua. Organizing for survival against a repressive right-wing military in El Salvador, however, appears to have forced the development of a much stronger and more unified popular movement. Nicaragua's popular movement seems to be in disarray, but in El Salvador people seem to be much better posed to confront the problems of the 1990s.

Generally the political situation in El Salvador is hopeful; many people are organizing for change. The peace accords seem to be holding, and a fair degree of political space has opened up for people on the left. The FMLN has converted itself from an underground guerilla/political force to a legal political party.

Unlike El Salvador, the political situation in Nicaragua appeared to be much more unstable. Corruption is becoming an increasingly large problem, and the growing power of the ultra-right is scary. Vice-president Virgilio Godoy and Managua mayor Alemán not only overtly encourage the re-contras, but may actually be covertly funding them in order to destabilize the moderate Chamorro government so that they could step into a power vacuum and take control of the country. Revolutionary murals (possibly on Alemán's orders?) have been destroyed in an attempt to erase memories of the Sandinistas. Neo-liberalism has taken a strong hold. The social situation seems to be in decline; people feel as if they have been duped once again. The UNO electoral propaganda promised a brighter future, but now many people realize that with the Sandinistas health care and education were at least free and that voting for the UNO coalition was a tragic mistake.

After ten years of funding a repressive military apparatus in El Salvador, the United States attention appears to have shifted toward economic development plans. The U.S. has built a huge new embassy and USAID complex on the edge of San Salvador on top of sacred Indian remains.

Although the United States has ended its support for the contra rebels, it continues to be involved in Nicaraguan politics. Rather than military involvement, this takes the form of economic assistance. U.S. aid, however, is tied directly to politics. There are increased efforts to draw foreign investment into the Nicaragua, but no economic aid is extended to the popular movements. USAID is working on three main issues: health care, education, and land redistribution, ironically the same issues which an ex-contra in Quilalí told us were the best parts of the Sandinista program in the 1980s. Clearly, the U.S. never gave the FSLN a chance and is now trying to institute some of the same things for which the Sandinistas fought so hard.

For a full copy of the report from the Kansas Student Delegation to Central America, contact Marc Becker, the delegation coordinator. Members of the delegation are also available to speak to groups on a variety of topics, and have prepared slide presentations and a video tape of the trip. Contact Marc in order to schedule a meeting. Marc Becker is a Ph.D. student in Latin American History at the University of Kansas and coordinator of Latin American Solidarity.

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