Biting the ballot
Central America Week this year coincides with two significant dates: the unexpected election result in Nicaragua and the tenth anniversary of Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. Father Gilbert Markus looks ahead to the week‘s events and discusses the implications of Nicaragua’s political upheavals.
Central America Week. as in previous years. brings together Christians and comedians. singers and solidarity workers. nurses. artists and unionists. in eight March days of hectic activity all over the country. Fund-raising and consciousness-raising in public meetings and exhibitions. or just raising Cain with a whole range of cultural events and fiestas. Central America Week has something for everyone. and programmes seem to get bigger every year. as ideas and experience accumulate.
Saturday 24 March is the tenth anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. whose words. ‘Be a voice for the voiceless‘. are the theme of this year's events. There will be vigils and processions all over the country on that date. The new film Romero. celebrating his memory. has its Scottish premiere in the Glasgow Film Theatre on 19 March. But shadows are thrown over such events. as human rights abuses in El Salvador are once again increasing.
The past year has witnessed a return to the pattern of the early eighties. A series ofmurders. disappearances. bombings and illegal detentions (often involving torture) ofcivic. church and labour leaders. have pushed many groups underground. as they did a decade ago in a war by the army against the people which has already cost 70.000 lives.
Another even darker shadow has been cast over Central America Week by the results of the Nicaraguan elections on 25 February. Nicaragua‘s revolutionary changes — land-reform. political pluralism. free education and health care as a right for all — have been a
Peasants learn to write in the government‘s literacy campaign.
mining ofharbours and all other machinations dreamt up by the Pentagon were the real cause of their problems.
They knew it in 1984 when they elected the Sandinistas to power. five years after the revolution. But in 1984 they were still hopeful and resilient. Five and a halfyears later the price has been too high. In this year‘s elections they were faced with an ultimatum from the USA: You vote for our candidate (Violeta (.‘hamorro and her UNO coalition) or you watch your children die.
The sacrifice had become too costly. The advances made by the Sandinistas had been outweighed by years of misery and fear. ()n 25 February they voted the Sandinista Party out ofoffice. and Dona Violeta led her bizarre l4-party l): ‘0 coalition to victory.
Nevertheless. the achievements of the Sandinistas will not be voted away overnight. Perhaps the most resounding achievement ofall is the fact of the election. For the first time in Nicaragua's history. there has been a change of government in a free and fair election. The credit for this must be given to the Sandinistas. and ()rtega's dignified acceptance of deleat has proved beyond doubt the
sign of hope for the poor ofother Latin American countries since
1979. In El Salvador. you can still see the writing on the walls in the capital, in San Miguel. in (‘halatenango Si Nicaragua vencio. lil Salvador vemcera’ — if Nicaragua has won. El Salvador will win! It was a sign: Things don‘t have to be this way. Things can change.
But in 1987. when l was in Nicaragua. even then the signs were there to be read. Nobody liked standing for hours in a queue to wait for rice or beans or cooking oil. A photographer in Esteli offered me two weeks wages fora couple of Duracell batteries for his flash-gun. The health centre had an old X-ray machine. but no film.
I attended too many funerals of people killed by the US-backed mercenaries. the ('ontras. in their ‘low intensity war.‘ I spent too many hours with weeping mothers. or drinking rum with bitt‘er young men in wheelchairs.
How much pain can a small country take'.’ People complained a lot. but they didn't usually blame the Sandinista: government. They knew that the war being waged on them by the most powerful nation in the world. the economic blockade. the
Leonor Zayas Y Los Novels: Cuban Band visiting Glasgow lor Central America Week.
emptiness of US rhetoric about Sandinista totalitarianism.
The Sandinistas‘ land reform programme has left about a third of Nicaragua's land in the hands of those who till it. mostly organised in cooperatives. These people will not be easily dispossessed. though the odds are that Dona Violeta will try.
There are international networks of support which are not going to disappear. though there are already signs of hostility to some of the foreign aid workers living in Nicaragua. Thousands of Nicaraguans have over the years acquired organisational experience. and the labour and cooperative movements will not be as easily intimidated and repressed as they have been in other (‘entral American countries.
Furthermore. under Nicaragua's system of proportional representation. the Sandinistas should have 41 percent ofthe Assembly‘s seats. and the UN() coalition will have to share out the remainder among their fourteen constituent parties. These include Communists. Socialists. Social Democrats and Social Christians who. on many issues. may vote with the Sandinistas and against their more conservative and pro-American UNO colleagues.
Besides their strong position as the largest single party in the National Assembly. the Sandinistas are still very influential in municipal politics. They also continue to enjoy. the British should notice. roughly the same proportion of electoral support as Mrs Thatcher achieved in her last electoral ‘landslidc victory.‘
So though the election has been welcomed by some as the death knell of .S‘anilinismo. and lamented by others for much the same reason. such reactions are premature.
The many links between Scottish and Nicaraguan groups will not just fade away. and even if Dona Violeta fails to follow the progressive policies of the Sandinistas. there will remain much ofenormous value in Nicaragua which will still enjoy the support ofaid agencies. unionists. health workers and church groups.
As in previous years. there will be much to learn in (‘entral America Week. Recent changes there demand changes here in the way we express our solidarity. in the ways in which Scottish voices can become ‘a voice for the voiceless.‘ But there is still much to celebrate.
Father (iilhert .l'la'rkus is ( 'atholic (’haplain at lirlinliurgh University. He worked in ('entral America in I980— 7. and has just returned from a two-week visit to [5/ Salvador. For full details of( 'entral America Week events in Glasgow and Edinburgh see ()pen listings.
Volunteers are still sought to join
( 'uhan ll'ork Brigades. Thee/using (late is 3/ .llttri'lt. Full (lentils and applicationforms/root Sandra .thckintosli. 7Rossllvn 'l’erritt‘i’. (ilasgoiv. (ill, (1413341369.
The List (F 22 March I990 87