Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Children of the Revolution

“Time is running out for Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega,” proclaims a headline in The Economist. “Nicaraguan students whose families fought with Daniel Ortega to oust the Somozas now lead a rebellion against Ortega’s own family dynasty,” a sub-head in The Wall Street Journal informs us.

Things are clearly unsettled in the Central American nation. Seeing the name Daniel Ortega back in the news again evokes interesting memories for me. Some of those memories found their way, in a literary guise, into my first novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. If you have read the book, then you know that the narrative does not lead my protagonist Dallas Green to Nicaragua, but it does take him up to and over the Mexico-Guatemala border. Along the way he becomes mixed up with a couple of political activists, one from California and the other from Galway. While those characters are completely invented, the American one (Peter) was at least partly inspired by people I knew in Seattle in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Here’s the background. When I was young and naive, I went to work for a weekly suburban newspaper. What I did not realize until I had been there awhile was that there was a unionization effort well underway by employees in my department. Because I was new and apparently unoffensive to management, I was persuaded to represent the prospective new bargaining unit in labor negotiations. Following a vote to unionize, I was elected the union representative. At this point the boyfriend of a co-worker latched onto me, convinced that I was some sort of firebrand of the workers’ rebellion. This fellow was an unabashed political leftist keen to find foot soldiers for his various projects. One such project was reading international news items with a non-American, non-corporate slant five evenings a week on a non-profit, community-based radio station, Seattle’s legendary KRAB. An even more interesting project my friend got me involved in was a voluntary technical effort to help modernize the Nicaraguan banking system. No, really.

In 1979 Sandinista rebels had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship and established a revolutionary government. A member of the new ruling junta was Daniel Ortega, the same man who is now Nicaragua’s president and who is currently facing mass student-led rebellion in response to cutbacks necessitated by the government’s financial mismanagement. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 127 people have been killed and 1,000 injured in the crack-down on anti-government protests that began in April. Four decades ago, though, Ortega was one of the young revolutionaries who had found themselves newly in charge of their country. One of the many challenges they faced was an antiquated banking system in which remote branches could not efficiently communicate with the capital Managua. That was what I got drafted for. The fact that I was learning to program at work and knew Spanish from having lived in Chile made me an near-ideal candidate.

While the Reagan administration was supporting Contra rebels to undermine the Sandinistas, I was writing code—and others were playing with shortwave radios—to build a packet-based transmission system to bypass Nicaragua’s lack of wired infrastructure. Personally, I looked at it more as a technical challenge than a political cause. The work we did was passed on to other volunteers, who took it to Nicaragua. I have no idea how much, if any, ended up being used in any practical way down there. One volunteer I met briefly along the way went down to build a rural hydroelectric facility. Unfortunately, it was located in the northern Contra war zone, and he was killed in an ambush at the age of 27. Enthusiasm for our project was already on the wane even before the Sandinistas were thrown out of government in an election in 1990.

The story in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead takes place several years before I had any (long-distance) involvement of my own in Central American politics, but my experiences in the 1980s—along with campus politics during my university days—were good research into how the American leftist mind works. While there may have been some wry hindsight humor in the way I portrayed Peter and Séamus, I hope I was fair to their point of view. The older and more cynical I get, though, the more I tend to think that revolutions are not really about ideology at all. In practice, by my observation anyway, revolutionaries are ultimately less concerned with the actual order of the social hierarchy than whether the right people are at the top.

Still, those who roll up their sleeves and get involved in the trenches deserve a certain amount of respect. The fates of Charles Horman in Chile in 1973 (subject of the Costa-Gavras film Missing) and Ben Linder in Nicaragua in 1987 are stark reminders that idealistic activism is not without its risks. As you may have guessed, they were both inspirations for my character Tommy Dowd, who meets a similar fate in my fiction.