During the Sandinista-Contras civil war in the 1980s, journalist and author Stephen Kinzer reported from the front lines for The New York Times. His experiences, observations, and analysis were published in his book Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. Since then, his work has not only become an authoritative account of one of the nation’s darkest decades, but it also serves as essential reading for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of the nation as a whole.
In April, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Kinzer via Skype from my site in Nueva Guinea. The electricity was spotty the entire day, making me fear we’d have to reschedule. Fortunately, it held steady and we were able discuss his time here, how much Nicaragua has changed, and where it is heading.
Stephen Kinzer (SK): Hi, there! So where are you calling from?
Conor Sanchez (CS): Hello! I’m calling from Nueva Guinea.
SK: Wow! I’ve been there. That was considered the end of the road.
CS: It still is, pretty much.
SK: Well, what can I do for you today?
CS: First, thank you for granting VaPué some of your time to discuss your experiences here. Can you tell us a little about your time in Nicaragua?
SK: My time in Nicaragua was shaped by the war that was going on at the time. I always tried to cover Nicaragua in its totality. Nicaragua was not just a war – Nicaragua was a country where war was happening. Many journalists were in the country at this time and I was one of them. There was intense world interest in the country at this time. I always found this interesting; somehow Nicaragua has never been able to find a balance in the attention it gets. It goes from being war-torn to the other extreme, where it is now, in which nobody knows about it. I took away something else from Nicaragua, which was the richness of the Nicaraguan spirit. Nicaraguans are wonderful people. They have remarkable spirit considering everything that they have been through.
CS: Have you been back?
SK: Yes, I come regularly. I was there just there a few months ago. I stay in touch with many of my Nicaraguan friends. I enjoy going there and trying to connect the Nicaragua I knew with the one that exists now. The development is simply remarkable in some areas. I’m not sure if it has the impact of changing the lives of ordinary people but it is definitely apparent. I never imagined that Estelí or Jinotega would be cool places to visit. In fact, I never imagined Nicaragua would become a tourist destination. If you had told me that back in the 1980’s, I would say it was a joke. I always thought it had a lot to show the world, but my experience with the country was first in war, so it was difficult to imagine. I’m sure we’ll all be going to Syria at some point, but it would be difficult for any American to imagine that today.
CS: Many of us were born after the war ended. And today, as you said, Nicaraguan is a tourist destination. Aside from a few protests here and there, life is pretty calm. So it’s often hard to imagine the direness and danger you describe in your book. Can you take us back to that time?
SK: I was trying to cover Nicaragua in its fullness. But my primary objective was covering
the war. People were being killed everyday. It was serious. Trucks and buses were being blown up. Helicopters were being shot out of the sky. Crying mothers were a common feature in every village. Here’s an example: I was based in Managua but the war was focused mostly in the north. It was dangerous to drive on roads during daylight. They were completely off limits at night. I could get out of Managua before dawn. After a while we’d get to Sébaco, a small town where you can either go to Estelí or Matagalpa. So at Sébaco we’d stop and we’d try to ascertain if trucks or buses had already driven up north.
We didn’t want to be the first ones going up because those were the ones blowing up. So we’d wait and when it was safe, we’d take off again. By the sides of roads, you’d see carcasses of blown up buses. There were trucks with “IFA” written on the sides of them – which meant they were Sandinista military vehicles. We never knew if it would happen to one of us. Roads were known to be littered with mines. We had to arrive in helicopters at tree top level to avoid being shot down. After my time there, I had seen enough dead bodies to last me several lifetimes.
CS: How was it in Managua?
SK: In Managua, there was no danger of violence. Nonetheless, everybody knew somebody who was at war and might be dead the next day. You just never knew. Contras were hitting the coffee harvesters the most. As we got into the mid 1980s, violence was everywhere. That changed the dynamic quite a bit.
CS: Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Any ideas why that is?
SK: A lot of reasons. One thing I find amazing today is that those under 30 really don’t know much about what happened in the war. I’ve talked to young people who think the Contras were fighting the liberals or that Sandino was fighting Somoza. The understanding of who was fighting and why, has evaporated. Young people are not being raised to compete in a global economy. And that’s why Nicaragua hasn’t been able to pull itself out of poverty. As the world globalizes, if conditions persist, it will only get left further and further behind. Just selling coffee and textiles is not what will pull it out.
CS: Is there any advice you could give currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers in terms of helping Nicaragua?
SK: I think Peace Corps Volunteers are doing great work in Nicaragua. I’ve always liked the idea of small-scale development, making change in small but tangible ways. All too often we get caught up waiting for big ideas to come along and change situations, when we could be doing something ourselves and Peace Corps is a chance to act on that belief. What volunteers could do that would have a big impact is help integrate young people into the world economy. What skills can we give to help them transcend the limits of their geography? There are a lot of people who believe the Internet only equals Facebook, and nothing else. But we’re in an era where challenges such as geographic isolation are no longer insurmountable obstacles, so finding ways to help Nicaraguans overcome those barriers through technology is a great endeavor.
CS: When most Americans hear about Nicaragua, they remember the war. Is there anything we could do to better educate Americans about Nicaragua?
SK: Appeal to Nicaragua’s greatest natural resource – its people. To acquaint Americans with Nicaragua on a deeper level, I think you have to convey the richness of the ordinary Nicaraguan. I learned so much from those wise people. They have so little but they share so much. Deprivation has brought them to great wisdom. It’s a spiritually enriching place.