A Review of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua


The Sandinistas and Nicaragua: Through a Journalist’s Eyes

by | May 19, 2008

Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua By Stephen Kinzer David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University Press, 2007, 460 pages.

Stephen Kinzer, New York Times Bureau Chief in Nicaragua for most of the war years, pauses in his compelling account of the war and its politics to explain the Socratic method needed to give directions in Managua—a city still not rebuilt a decade after its 1972 earthquake and bereft of street signs. “Do you know where the Pepsi Cola plant used to be (before the earthquake)?” If the answer is negative try another more distant landmark; if positive begin the narrative—go three blocks al lago (toward the lake), two abajo (the direction where the sun goes down), then 25 varas al lago to the green house on the left. Find a known landmark (existing or not) that was not too many twists and turns away from the ultimate destination.

I imagine two audiences for this handsome DRCLAS edition of the book originally published in 1991—an older crowd with knowledge of the political landmarks and a college-age group that was in kindergarten when U.S.-backed Violeta Chamorro defeated Sandinista Daniel Ortega in 1990.

At that time, Nicaragua had been a leading news story in the United States since 1978. It is to Kinzer’s great credit that as a young freelancer he sniffed this story out. When it broke during the rebellion against the Somoza family dynasty, he was quickly hired by the Boston Globe, and not long after that the Times came calling.

Perhaps half a dozen U.S. professors had any expertise in Nicaragua before 1978; by the early 1980s it had become a frequent subject in college courses. Kinzer notes that 100,000 North Americans visited Nicaragua during the Sandinista years. Though many were on short visits—political tourists in Kinzer’s term—they were deeply involved in this centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. Most were fervently in favor of the Sandinistas and still more opposed U.S. foreign policy in Central America. A good many in this older group may want to revisit through this book. For them, Blood of the Brothers will be an emotive read.

A younger generation of readers may find themselves lost in Managua. This is not meant as a criticism. Kinzer is a fine writer and like cordial Nicaraguans on the streets of Managua provides guideposts. Among the many books on Central America, Kinzer’s is eminently readable. But Nicaraguan and U.S. politics were extremely complex. The cast of characters is large. And the political distance from here to there is great. The Cold War is an abstraction and so Reagan’s obsession with Nicaragua will be hard to understand.

The cell phone generation used to constant online news may not “get” Kinzer’s desperation to make deadline on the one working phone in rural Sapoa needed by several dozen reporters for news of a breakthrough in talks between the Sandinistas and the U.S.- organized and financed “contra” rebels.

But they would be well advised to read this book. Kinzer tells a trying story about a war being fought on the soil of a dirt poor country—hardly an irrelevant topic in the last few years. Equally important for those interested in international conflict resolution is the long and winding thread of negotiations that led to a way out, but not until all sides had been weakened: the Sandinistas by a war-damaged, collapsed economy, the U.S. government by the Iran-Contra scandal, the contras in turn by threatened supply lines. Nicaragua had been bled white.

Relentless as this story is, Kinzer provides breaks in the action, some humorous, with cultural encounters, side trips into history, swims in the Rio Coco, and tricks learned to circumvent rules and find goods made scarce by the war.

These “sidebars” flesh out the book’s second story—the life and practice of a war correspondent. This will interest and provoke both younger and older readers. To other reporters and observers of Nicaragua, Kinzer had the plum job. Bureau chief of the most influential paper in the United States with an office, staff, car and an ingenious driver who got him out of many scrapes, Kinzer was a sought after figure by all sides. Inevitably, his reporting was controversial to many, perhaps most, players and sympathizers.

Though the plum job, it was not one for the faint of heart. Many reporters ran risks and some in Central America were killed. Kinzer’s posting to Nicaragua ran on— and on and on. And so did the number of trips down roads where the contras often staged ambushes or planted mines. The continued dangers and repeated exposure to the brutal human damage of the war took a personal toll. He wanted out, and then a relative peace arrived at Sapoa in 1988. He left before the 1989-90 electoral campaign got rolling.

To old Nicaragua hands of various stripes the book will recall perhaps still smoldering controversies. The Oliver North crowd will not like this book. When Reagan hardliners trumped conciliatory figures such as Secretary of State George Schultz, chances at peace were lost. The brutality of the contras and presence of Somoza’s officers in their top ranks is an oft mentioned theme. These are not freedom fighters as Reagan would have it. I found myself reliving the old arguments. The Washington consensus was that the Sandinistas were very bad; the debate was what to do about it. Kinzer has a more nuanced view of the Sandinista government, but in the main he is critical, particularly of their repressive tactics against the civilian opposition inside the country.

I think occasional comparisons with El Salvador or Guatemala would have enabled younger readers, to better assess the Sandinistas and their opponents.

For example Kinzer dismisses Sandinista agrarian policies as hopeless models of state control (fixed prices, state farms, state-sponsored cooperatives) that had been tried elsewhere and failed. Thus, he suggests, peasant disaffection quickly grew and soon led to peasants in the north joining the contras. At the time the U.S. press ignored agrarian issues. Crucial though they were in Central America, they were not part of the debate in Washington.

Careful readers will see that the agrarian issue was more complex. Contras, mainly peasants, attacked cooperatives defended by peasant members armed by the Sandinistas. Prior to the 1984 election I visited a cooperative. Coop leaders greeted me with a litany of complaints about the Sandinistas. No tractors, insufficient fertilizer, and lack of technical assistance. When I suggested that not many on this cooperative would vote for the Sandinistas, they looked at me in disbelief. “Who do you think gave us the land?” they said.

By the 1970s, the traditional Latin American model of large haciendas had left extensive rural poverty, and expansion of export products in Central America had shoved many peasants off the land. In El Salvador even the Reagan administration supported (perhaps through clenched teeth) agrarian cooperatives that emerged from a U.S.- sponsored confiscation of large farms.

Kinzer has a good deal of sympathy and not much criticism for civilian opponents of the Sandinistas—La Prensa, the newspaper of Somoza’s victim Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and then his widow Violeta, Arturo Cruz who almost became a presidential candidate in 1984, and then became a contra director with a CIA stipend, and Archbishop Obando y Bravo and various other anti-Sandinista bishops, though he does criticize Obando y Bravo for his failure to criticize the brutality of the contras.

The obvious Salvadoran parallel to Obando y Bravo is Archbishop Romero, assassinated in 1980, by a death squad associated with a man who became a 1984 presidential candidate. Romero was neither the first nor the last cleric to be killed, but it took the cold-blooded murder of six Jesuit priests a decade later for the United States to begin to consider abating the munificent flow of aid to that country’s government.

Even when censored, La Prensa remained a hard hitting, polemical critic of the Sandinistas. By contrast small leftist papers in El Salvador had been bombed out of business. Kinzer does note that repression elsewhere in Central America was much worse, but the sentence that acknowledges this does not emerge until page 304.

Kinzer dismisses the 1984 elections in Nicaragua as a “charade” once Arturo Cruz decided not to enter the race leaving only small opposition parties involved. His account of negotiations between Cruz and the Sandinistas holds the Sandinistas as ultimately responsible. But it seems clear they had made concessions sufficient to satisfy Cruz, who was then told by backers in Nicaragua not to sign anything.

By contrast the 1984 Salvadoran election was celebrated as an exercise in democracy in the U.S. press and by the Reagan administration despite massive death squad killings in the previous four years. The obvious parallel to Arturo Cruz would be Salvadoran Ruben Zamora and other civilian opposition figures who almost certainly would have been assassinated had they not fled El Salvador years before.

He attributes Chamorro’s 1990 victory to the deep unpopularity of the Sandinistas and her own iconic figure—widow of martyred Pedro Joaquín, a mother who presided with success over a family that had members on both sides of the fight. But this analysis pays little heed to the other crucial influence in the election. The war was likely to continue if the Sandinistas won because the U.S.-backed- contras remained in the field. Though somewhat less active, the contras had asserted that if the Sandinista won, the election could not have been free and fair—despite massive, unprecedented levels of UN and OAS election observation over many months.

Kinzer’s portrayal of the ever mounting toll of the war is of such power that it cannot be doubted that the threat of more war must have affected voters.

These criticisms aside, Kinzer’s great store of knowledge and his affection for Nicaragua and sympathy for its suffering people carries the book. First-time visitors and re-visitors will be engaged from beginning to end.

Jack Spence is a professor of political science and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He heads Hemisphere Initiatives, a research organization that has monitored peace and democratization processes in Central America. He was an official observer of the 1989-1990 election in Nicaragua.

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