My first time visiting Managua, Nicaragua in 1983 was only my second trip to a country in the developing world. I traveled with a group of American doctors from San Francisco who were going down to provide medical support to the newly victorious Sandinista government, which had overthrown the dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979. When I arrived, I was greeted by an energy that I had never felt before or since. There was a palpable joy in the air, a feeling that the people had actually freed their country and regained control of their destiny. Tragically, that was a short lived dream, mainly due to the cold war proxy fight that the Reagan administration prosecuted through the illegal Iran/Contra affair. Basically the Reagan administration covertly sold arms to Iran, and the money the CIA received was used as a slush fund to support the Contra rebels, who were fighting the Sandanistas. What transpired was a protracted conflict throughout much of the 1980’s. Whether the Sandinistas would have ever made good on their promises, it’s impossible to know given the drain on their energy, treasury, and good will, in having to fight a tough war against US-backed rebels. Here is an image I made during my visit back then, which represented a massive education in what it meant to cover conflict and how difficult it can be to produce work that makes a difference.
This past Sunday I arrived in Managua for the fifth time in the past 4 years to continue a stills and video project on CKDnT, chronic kidney disease of unknown origins, which has sickened or killed approximately 20,000 sugar cane workers in Nicaragua and throughout Central America over the past 20 years. I am now working with a great young filmmaker, Tom Laffay, in conjunction with Talking Eyes Media and Julie Winokur, on a feature length documentary about this issue.
This time, my arrival was marred by the confiscation of my equipment under the guise of a new law that was recently enacted, requiring foreign filmmakers and journalists to register at least 2 weeks prior to their visit for permission to bring equipment into the country. When I came here last year there was no such law. While the people were pleasant enough, this stressful experience cost me 2 days in the field. I am left feeling bereft of any hope that the current government, which is facing elections later this year, is making life better for it’s people. This new rule also smacks of censorship, or at the very least, undue control of foreign media during an election year. The standard of living in Nicaragua is the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Development has been stymied and the spirit of the people, while beautiful and in some ways gentle and positive, is depressed by the lack of hope or opportunity.
Having seen the lack of labor protections through the specific work I’ve been doing over the past 3+ years here, I can’t help but feel that the revolution has been a failure and the same power structures of oligarch families and a corrupt government only serve the few and leave the masses behind. One would hope that a socialist political movement, which is what the Sandinistas were founded on, would at the very least protect their workers!
Doesn’t this sound familiar in the USA and many other places in the world today? There is no question that the income gap and the failure of our governments to protect the common good, and moreover a prevailing value system that many politicians, companies and individuals seem to increasingly be living by, feed into a culture that works against the common good.