doing the right thing for tina

Crowds in Managua celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, 19th July 2011. Photo: David McKnight

For the second time in a month President Daniel Ortega has brought up the 1986 International Court of Justice ruling against the United States and in favour of Nicaragua. At yesterday’s 32nd anniversary celebrations of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega called for a national referendum to demand that the US pay damages for funding the contras and mining Nicaragua’s harbours.  Three weeks ago Ortega reminded Nicaraguans that an estimated $17billion in damages could be claimed from the US if Nicaragua chose to return to the decision of the Court (see our original post here). A ‘yes’ vote in a referendum would be a no-brainer for all but the most bitter of Ortega’s political opponents (the majority of which boycotted yesterdays celebrations). It would also do no harm to Ortega’s poll ratings ahead of November’s Presidential elections where he looks increasingly likely to chalk up a convincing victory. Some say the FSLN may even achieve the coveted majority in the National Assembly. However, to see this latest broadside against the United States as just another astute political manoeuvre by Ortega is also to miss the point. The issue is fundamentally one of justice. The court ruled that the United States had violated international law in funding and arming the contras as well as laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbours. But what did this mean in reality? Why all the fuss over something that happened over 25 years ago?

Quoting from the LA Times, Noam Chomsky provides us with a glimpse of that grim reality:

“Western military analysts say the contras have been stashing tons of newly dropped weapons lately while trying to avoid heavy combat… Meanwhile, they have stepped up attacks on easy government targets like the La Patriota farm cooperative…, where several militiamen, an elderly woman and her year-old grandson died in a pre-dawn shelling.” To select virtually at random from the many cases deemed unworthy of notice, on November 2, 1987, 150 Contras attacked two villages in the southern province of Rio San Juan with 88-mm mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, killing six children and six adults and injuring 30 others. Even cooperatives of religious pacifists who refused to bear arms were destroyed by the US terrorist forces.

As Chomsky points out, there are countless, similar, gruesome cases of US-sponsored terrorist brutality in Nicaragua. The small rural community of El Lagartillo near Achuapa and the story of La Vida de Tina (published by Co-operativa Maria Zunilda Perez) may be familiar to some readers. In 1984, Florentina Perez Calderon (Tina) moved with her family to the new co-operative community of El Lagartillo built on land that had belonged to one of Somoza’s National Guardsman, Antonio Palacios. The land had been confiscated by the Sandinistas and redistributed to poor campesinos, like Tina who had supported the Sandinistas in the revolution of 1979. On the morning of 31st December 1985, the contra attacked. ‘They attacked with artillery, bombs, rockets and mortars’, Tina recounts. Fourteen lightly armed campesinos tried to defend the co-operative against one hundred and fifty heavily armed contra. The contra killed six members of the co-operative. One of those was Jose Angel, Tina’s husband. Another was Zunilda, Tina’s twenty year old daughter. Yet another was Javier Perez, Tina’s nephew. Tina recalls the pain of having to identify the bodies, “It hurt my very soul to see little Javier with his head split open”. After the massacre, the contra destroyed the school and burnt everything in the community:

I had no food, no clothes, nothing. The co-operative had been destroyed. Most of all, our dreams and hopes and projects had been smashed. So many years of struggle reduced to ashes. I was alone, without my husband, without my daughter and with my heart broken into a thousand pieces. I was so alone. I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.

There are many, many ‘Tinas’ in Nicaragua. And yet the outgoing US Ambassador says that ‘the case is closed’, that anyway, in 1991 the Chamorro government renounced any claim to damages and that the US has, in a way, paid compensation to Nicaragua in the form of US government aid – amounting to ‘at least $2billion since 1990’. As anyone familiar with the way US aid is spent in Nicaragua might ask – what use to Tina is a brand new SUV bought for a State Department employee? What use to Tina is a fat salary paid to a US government official? What use to Tina is USAID money spent on funding the political campaigns of the right-wing opposition parties? Because these are the places where that money goes. And the answer, of course, is ‘no use whatsoever’. And what of the decision by the Chamorro government to ‘waive’ the right of Nicaraguans to seek compensation? Well, it would be rather odd for a US-funded government to pursue a claim for damages against the US wouldn’t it? Tina deserves justice. Jose Angel deserves justice. Zunilda deserves justice. Javier Perez deserves justice. And so do thousands of others whose lives were shattered or cruelly taken away during those dark years.

Believe it or not there is another reason why the issue of damages is fundamentally one of justice. Yesterday, Ortega pointed out that Nicaragua has already compensated Nicaraguans who later became US citizens for property confiscated after the revolution (see here for a previous article on the subject). In fact, according to Nicaragua’s Attorney General, Hernan Estrada (who we spoke with last month), Nicaragua has paid out nearly $1.3billion in compensation to these ‘US citizens’ who lost property during the ’80’s. Estrada also pointed out that the compensation is in the form of interest-bearing bonds:

There has been a total of $325.6m in interest payments on these bonds. This is the equivalent of 19% of Nicaragua’s GDP. Or 58% of the health budget or 40% of the education budget.

Further, Estrada also told us that of the 227 cases outstanding, these constitute:

the remnant of the most complex cases – former members of Somoza’s National Guard. Only 15 of these are actually US born. The others are those who went to Miami at the time of the revolution…Some are implicated in the killing of [US journalist] Bill Stewart. Some of them were torturers who had tortured the current Nicaraguan foreign minister and other Sandinistas. These cases are not worthy. They were not US citizens when this property belonged to them, they were Nicaraguan citizens. Why does the US government pick up the cause of people who’s claims are made about property when they were Nicaraguan citizens? The US government is supporting the false claims of assassins and torturers.

The compensation issue is a matter of justice.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. US-backed dictators bled the country dry, a US-backed terrorist group massacred tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and brought the country to it’s knees, US-backed governments sold off Nicaragua’s assets and embezzled tens of millions of dollars.

Isn’t it now time for the US to back off and pay up?


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