In 1979 the Sandanistas ousted the repressive Somoza Dynasty that had ruled Nicaragua for 5 decades and embarked on a program of land reform. Two years later, Ronald Reagan and his cohorts responded to this “communist threat” by suspending aid and establishing a CIA funded counter revolutionary force consisting of former Somoza loyalists. The ensuing David vs. Goliath Contra war lasted almost a decade and resulted in 30,000 civilian deaths. The country became a media flashpoint, but once the hostilities ceased, the camera crews left for the next hotspot, and Nicaragua slipped off the radar.
Kids with guns
Peter Raymont and Harold Crooks’ 1987 award-winning documentary “The World is Watching” examined media reporting during the Contra War. Editors loved the Nicaraguans as they made great subjects with their bright colored clothes, friendly demeanor and dark exotic looks. Consequently media outlets from around the globe flocked to the country to get some good press. Crooks explained that that interest came at a price “The Nicaraguan revolution wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did but for the presence of the foreign media.”
A disturbing trend emerged during their initial investigation, whereby overzealous editors took excessive creative license with many reports and stories filed from the field often bore little resemblance to final broadcasts, especially when there was something that might paint America in a bad light. When the duo left Nicaragua in 1987 the country was winning the war against illiteracy, the infant mortality rate had plummeted, and there was a general feeling of optimism.
In 2002, Raymont and Crooks, along with Bill Gentile and Randolph Ryan – well-known journalists who covered the conflict for several years– went back to Nicaragua to see how the country had changed since falling out of the limelight. They were stunned by what awaited them: due in part to the legacy of the war, US trade embargoes and the recent plundering of the treasury by president Arnoldo Alemán the Nicaragua of the new millenium was a wholly different place. Crooks was awestruck, “the country went into a total horrible freefall [after entering the world economy]… by any index of social or economic well-being. Hundreds of thousands of children have no schools, [there is widespread] malnutrition, rumors of starvation, no health care, it was just horrible.”
The group visited several people they had spoken with a decade and a half earlier. One, the mother of a slain young man whose wake Gentile had photographed, symbolized the devastation wrought by the war: she and her husband separated soon after the death of their son, and her daughter-in-law moved away to be with her family. The cooperative farm had long since been abandoned and the woman was totally alone and destitute. There are, however, signs that the country is moving beyond the past.
Another woman originally interviewed in the aftermath of a Contra attack in which she lost a son and daughter, now seemed in remarkably good spirits: although poor, she had a roof over her head, looked healthy and appeared to have put her life back together. This spirit of resilience and optimism was echoed through other interviews, most notably the meeting with legendary Sandanista leader Captain Julio Ochoa.
After the war, Ochoa abandoned the life of the military for the simple life. When the crew went to visit him, they discovered that Ochoa now counted as his closest friends two former Contra soldiers. Ochoa explained that dredging up the past served no purpose other than reopening old wounds and that they simply wanted to start anew. When I spoke with Crooks (also a contributor for the Sundance doc hit “The Corporation) he noted that this mindset was widespread “The convergence of former combatants is a remarkable example of the healing process among the common people. Quite awesome given the savagery of the Contra war. We had no idea of the relationship [between Ochoa and his friends].” The country’s ability to grow is evidenced in other ways as well.
The Nicaraguan government has shown determination to hold those in the power responsible for their actions if they are not serving the people. “One of the living legacies of the Sandanista revolution was the prosecution of Arneldo Alenar [the former Nicaraguan president]…It is… the first time in Latin American history that a country was prosecuting a former president.” The case took on a certain irony - “Revolutions work themselves out in very unanticipated ways. The judge [who prosecuted the case]…had come up through the ranks of the Sandanistas.” Without the revolution, he would never have been brought to justice. Crooks feels that the verdict in this case “…will travel through the nervous system of Latin America.” Indeed there are signs that others are being held accountable for their misdeeds “ It looks like Argentina is going to prosecute officials for the disappearances during their Dirty War. In Chile there may be new prosecutions.” Another outgrowth of Nicaragua’s ongoing struggle is that “the campensinos…no longer feel intimidated by the powerful people. The revolution lives in the spirit and psychology of the common people…and across the political divide.” Crooks’ optimism about the potential for Nicaragua does not extend to the state of the media and reporting.
I asked Crooks (one of the writers of “The Corporation) for his thoughts on the phenomena of “embedded” journalists during the recent Iraq conflict. He replied “The power of vested interests to control the media is greater than it was in the 80’s”. And what did he think of the complaints of “unilaterals” (those journalists that chose not to travel with the troops) who were refused entry into Iraq, threatened with withdrawal of accreditation, detained and interrogated by the U.S. military, and in some cases claimed to have deliberately targeted by coalition troops? His shock was evident from his reply “I hadn’t heard of that down here. [If that happened] it takes controlling the news agenda to a whole new plateau.”
“The World Stopped Watching” serves as a caveat, reminder and offers a ray of hope. Crook’s desire is that the film will “… play a… role in reminding people about the consequences of the illegitimate use of power, the human consequences of it, and also show the world that legitimate revolutions live on in unexpected ways. [If it does that] I think we will have accomplished something.”