Nicaragua: War and Elections 1987-1991
I was fascinated by the Nicaraguan revolution and did not hesitate when I had the opportunity to go there in 1987 and work. The Sandinistas revolutionaries had overthrown the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was a year older than me, and most of the junta leaders were even younger: my generation overthrew a bad guy and was building a fair society!
Ronald Reagan did not see it that way. When he took office, in 1981, the U.S. created a mercenary army, the Contras, and began funding a war to take back the country from the leftist revolutionaries. Nicaragua was a small, rural country of 3 million people and the Contra war “dirty and bloody, devastated the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.” I was disheartened to see my country inflicting such suffering and chaos on the Nicaraguans who, it appeared to me, were striving only for some relief from poverty and a measure of dignity.
In the spring of 1987, I got a call from a graphic designer friend who, last I heard, worked at Vogue magazine! Ellen was now in Managua, working for the Sandinista newspaper Barricada. She asked if I might be interested in taking pictures for the newspaper. Ellen worked on their international, English language edition and they wanted to produce a color slide show to illustrate all aspects of the Nicaraguan revolution to show to visiting supporters.
People from all over the world came to Nicaragua to work and help the Sandinistas, including many from the U.S. and they would see my slide show as an introduction to the country. I could think of no more exciting way to learn about Nicaragua than to spend two weeks on assignment for the governing party. For them, having a New York advertising photographer take color photographs, for free, had some allure – especially at a time when color film and developing wasn’t even available in Nicaragua.
I discovered early on that they expected me to fund the whole project: my airfare, hotel, and cost of film and processing. I decided it was worth spending several thousand dollars in expenses to have this experience, so I planned the trip. We set a date and I arrived at Managua’s 1950’s-era airport on July 14th 1987.
Ellen was supposed to meet my plane and take me to a guest house. Mine was the last flight of the afternoon and as I walked through immigration and customs the lights were being shut off. There was no sign of Ellen and the few remaining taxis were beginning to leave. It was getting dark. I was the last passenger at the airport and was about to be stranded. Welcome to the revolution!
I got into one of the remaining taxis and asked to be taken to Managua’s best hotel. As we drove into the city, the driver began telling me about a wonderful, cheap hotel. I interrupted, insisting, “No, no, what is the most expensive hotel in all of Managua? Take me there!” Mercifully, he took me to the Intercon, the one semi-luxury hotel in town. Built 18 years before, and never refurbished, the Intercon was the shabby queen of Managua hotels, “where journalists traded rumors at lunch, diplomats gave evening receptions and adventurers of all kinds told outrageous stories late into the night,” according to the New York Times correspondent in 1987.
I checked in and took my bags to my tiny room. In that moment, being by myself in this strange country, facing the possibility of not finding my friend at the newspaper, plus the fear that the entire trip might be a bust, made me feel like hiding out in the room and calling it a night. But I knew it was critical to end the day with a good experience so I forced myself to go down to the crowded hotel bar.
I recognized several people sitting together at a table who had been on the same flight as me. Gathering up my courage, I introduced myself and asked if I might join them. They invited me to sit and we spent a wonderful few hours talking about Nicaragua. This experience completely changed the tone of my arrival from feeling alone and stranded, to meeting welcoming new friends, and hoping that if I were brave enough, things would work out well.
The next morning, I got the address of Barricada from the concierge and took a taxi straight there. Luggage in-hand, I walked into the large news room and saw Ellen sitting at one of the desks. Her jaw dropped in shock when she saw me. Not only had she gotten my arrival date wrong, but she had been told the previous day that the project had been cancelled! She was about to call me in New York to say “Don’t come!” Apparently some visiting American volunteer had caused a problem and the Sandinistas were not allowing any more Americans into the country to work as volunteers for the government unless they were first vetted for politics. Ellen’s boss, Sandra, apologized profusely but was adamant, since the edict had come down. I asked to speak with Sandra’s boss and was taken to see the paper’s editor-in-chief, Carlos Fernando Chamorro.
Carlos Fernando was 31 years old. Five of his ancestors had been presidents of the country and his mother would become president two years later. As a member of Nicaragua’s aristocracy and intellectual elite, Carlos Fernando lived comfortably but simply and he was uninterested in appearances or material gain. An advisor to President Ortega and the Sandinista government, he was friendly, warm and funny but also serious, hardworking and determined.
I calmly explained the expenses I had taken on, due to my commitment to help the Sandinista government, and mentioned names of some friends in New York who had been politically active. Carlos Fernando was non-committal. He explained that barring U.S. volunteers was a “political decision” but said he would look into it and let me know what he could do.
Sandra called me the next day and told me, rather stiffly, that I could proceed with my project, as if they were doing me the favor. I later learned that Sandra had been deeply embarrassed by the confusion. Despite the less-than-welcoming reception, I was determined to keep an optimistic, upbeat spirit in order to do the job well and to have as good a time as possible doing it.
I was free to go wherever I wanted and had unimpeded access to the newspaper’s sprawling printing plant. I began by making portraits of the men working the huge presses.
Ellen had arranged for me to stay in a family home that accepted boarders for added income. It was located in a middle class neighborhood not far from Barricada. During my first few days there I went exploring and found a poor barrio nearby, only a block or two long.
Houses of rough wood or cinder blocks lined a hard-packed, clay dirt path. Sticking out of the ground in front of one house was a simple pipe and spigot that served as the neighborhood water supply. A handsome teenage boy stood by the spigot to wet his comb and, with great care and deliberation, styled his thick black hair.
I thought he looked great and asked if I could take his picture. He posed like a James Dean or Paul Newman. As soon as I started taking pictures a couple of 6-year-olds zipped in front of the camera to join the boy. Within seconds, like iron flakes rushing to a magnet, eleven kids and one dog ran next to the boy to get in the picture, posing with great seriousness and gravity. I felt this picture was a great gift from those kids to me; it became my favorite of the whole series.
Soon a boy, no more than six years old, struggled over to the spigot dragging a galvanized aluminum pail. A grown-up sized hat covered half his head as he stood bravely for a portrait.
Walking on, I saw an unwashed 2-year-old with light brown hair, incredibly bright blue eyes and wearing pearl earrings. Where did those blue eyes come from?
Next, I saw a lovely girl about eight. Like more than a few Central Americans, her face hinted at the Asian part of her ancestry. In Nicaraguan style she was called China, just as others might be affectionately called Skinny, Fatty or Red.
I returned to this same street, seven years later, with prints of all the children I had photographed. I could find only China after someone recognized her portrait and brought me to her house. I hardly recognized her, now a hard looking 13-year-old. I asked if I could take her picture again and she ran into her room to change. This is how she came out:
In 1987, there were periods during each day when there was no electricity. Water was also only available for a few hours a day so one had to carefully plan when to cook, when to bathe and when to flush the toilet, if you had one. Getting anything done was difficult. Because of the U.S.’ economic embargo, it was impossible to buy many material necessities like batteries, film, car parts and even clothing. The supermarket shelves were usually empty. However, everyone suffered more or less equally, so there was a palpable feeling of “we are all in this together and damn the U.S. for doing this to us.”
People I met were uniformly welcoming, curious and grateful for the many volunteers from all over the world who came to help the Nicaraguan revolution. It was not difficult to feel as if we were witnessing something special.
July 19, 1987, marked Nicaragua’s seventh Revolutionary Independence Day. The celebration was in Matagalpa, a smaller city in the North of the country. I got a ride from a reporter at the paper and was dropped off at the area reserved for the camera press. There were thousands of people standing in a large field in front of a raised platform serving as a stage. The nine Sandinista Commandante’s were there, as well as heads of state from many nations that were very much not aligned with or outright antagonistic to the U.S.
I had brought along a new Nikon 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens. It was enormous – the front glass measuring almost 5 inches across. With the camera it weighed almost seven pounds. Although the lens weight and $3000 price tag put it out of the range of photojournalists, it was a great, sharp lens and worth every penny if you had the strength and stamina to carry it. It certainly stood out among the photographers at the celebration in Matagalpa.
We photographers were put twenty or so yards away, far enough so that my 300mm lens came in handy. While I was taking pictures, another photographer came over, introduced himself as Bill and asked what lens I was using. I explained it was a 300mm f2.8, took it off my camera and handed it to him, “Here, try it!” This was the beginning of a friendship with Bill Gentile, who at that time was the Newsweek photojournalist for Latin America. He was living in Managua with his Nicaraguan wife, Claudia. Bill’s boundless generosity of spirit, knowledge and resources were essential to my learning about being a photojournalist and navigating Nicaragua.
After nine intense days of taking photographs, I took the film back to the U.S. to develop and found that I had enough pictures to make three complete slide shows. I returned to Managua at the end of November, 1987, to present the work to the Barricada newspaper editors. Whatever their expectations were, they seemed surprised not only that I had returned, but by the quality of the pictures and that I’d made three slide shows instead of just one. They were enormously happy with the results and asked if I would give a photography class to their 5 staff photographers and two picture editors. I accepted their invitation.
Because the photography class was a high profile project for Barricada, I was given lodging in a government guest house and assigned a Sandinista party member to help me get things done and to probably to keep an eye on me. Arturo, a wonderful man, also became a friend and he very generously made a Lada automobile available to me.
During my first visit to Barricada, I’d observed that their photographers had learned their craft pragmatically: “Set this dial on that number and push this button and in all likelihood a picture will come out.” Despite not having had exposure to photography as an art, most of them had good eyes and made solid photojournalistic pictures. They believed, however, that their poverty and lack of better, more up-to-date camera equipment held them back.
I thought it would be helpful for them to believe they could take great pictures with the equipment they had so when I returned to give the class in January, 1988, I brought with me photography books showing great work from the 19th and 20th Centuries, all done with equipment more primitive than theirs. I told them that the two most important pieces of photo equipment were their heads and their hearts and they already possessed both.
Word had gotten out about the class and 21 students showed up instead of the originally planned five. In addition to the staff photographers, other reporters, an active duty army officer who left her AK47 in a corner, and the wife of Nicaragua’s secret service chief also joined us.
At the first class meeting we decided that since everyone worked, we’d hold the class in two parts, every day, for the next two weeks: 2 hours at 7am and an hour-and-a-half at 5:30pm. At the second session, the students politely asked me to work with an interpreter because my photo Spanish was incomprehensible. They presented Carlos, an Argentine journalist working at Barricada, who became my interpreter and good friend.
We also had to do our darkroom work in the face of frequent unavailability of water and electricity. Nonetheless, I was determined to stay optimistic. I had to set a good example and was not going to let the deprivations faced by the Nicaraguans defeat me. Meanwhile, whenever I could take time off from the class, I went out on the streets and into the countryside to photograph Nicaragua.
The American Embassy, surrounded by 16 foot walls and guarded by machine-gun-carrying U.S. Marines, was located next to a Managua shanty town. The houses had corrugated tin ceilings and walls made of rough wood. Some had walls of cardboard. I went there to photograph the contrast of poverty with the American fortress. I met a teenage couple, she was pregnant and he could not find work. They did not know what lay in store for them.
I visited the small dusty town of Niquinohomo, birthplace of Augusto Sandino, Nicaragua’s first armed revolutionary leader. His family home, unchanged since the 1890’s, had been converted into a museum. On the day of my visit it was closed with no one in sight. As I wandered around, I met an older man who told me that he had delivered messages to Sandino, on horseback as a child, when Sandino was hiding out in the mountains from the U.S. Marines during the early 1930s.
Back in Managua, the class exceeded everyone’s expectations. We all worked hard and the students produced wonderful work. At the end of the class, we hung their best pictures in the newspaper lobby and we had a proper opening party. The students felt they had learned much and were justifiably proud of their achievements; this was my best reward. Carlos Fernando thanked me in a short speech and presented me with a picture of myself teaching that had been signed by all my students.
The Sandinistas had been so pleased with the class that they rewarded me by asking me to build a new darkroom – and pay for it myself. Arturo and I designed the space and met with a contractor. He said it was a one week job which he would complete that month. I flew home to New York with plans to return to Managua with the darkroom equipment within the month. I raised money for the project from friends in NYC and made up the budget gaps myself.
Work and life delayed my return to Managua by a month, but in May 1988, I arrived with all the darkroom equipment and supplies in tow. At the airport, the Customs folks quickly impounded all the gear. I called Arturo, who then made some calls to explain that the equipment was intended for government use. The next day an Army truck was sent to collect the gear from customs.
In the meantime, I headed over to the newspaper to check out the newly built darkroom. I found instead the same corner, with the same dust, undisturbed since we’d planned the renovations two months earlier. Nothing had been done. Once again, I called Arturo for help. He produced the contractor the next day. Arturo made it clear that he had to begin the project “ya!” (now!)
The difficulty of getting anything at all done because of material shortages was demoralizing. In addition, the heat was inescapably oppressive. It’s always hot in Nicaragua. Summer is hot and wet, and winter, from December through April, is hot and dry. By May, after five months of no rain, tiny particles of red clay fill the torpid air and attach to sweating skin like a wool blanket. The darkroom construction was two months behind schedule. I needed to take a break from the project.
Poor, small Nicaragua had by then been under siege by the U.S. for nine years and I felt like the darkroom project had become my own battle against the effects of the economic boycott. I needed a day off to get away from the difficulties of everyday life in Managua. I borrowed Arturo’s Russian-made Lada station wagon, which was working on its second hundred thousand kilometers, and headed out of town.
I planned to make my way southeast, towards Masaya, a smaller city renowned for its fierce resistance to Somoza’s dictatorship during the late 1970s. The student uprising had incurred the wrath and insulted the machismo of Somoza’s National Guard who had responded with a concentrated aerial bombardment and ground assault against Masaya’s civilian neighborhoods. Eleven years later, Masaya’s buildings remained pockmarked with rifle and artillery fire, and its streets and parks were now named for fallen teenaged revolutionaries. Seeing history inscribed on these walls reminded me of why I had come to Nicaragua.
The U.S. embargo had ground most commercial activity to a halt; gasoline was scarce and expensive. By the time the Masaya highway narrowed to a two lane avenue, under a canopy of orange-blossoming Malinche trees, my car was the only vehicle on the road. The Lada rattled along peacefully until, as if out of nowhere, two men appeared at the side of the road. One of them was about 50, the other much younger. The older man, wearing some type of uniform, flagged me down.
I braked reflexively; perhaps they needed help or they were Sandinista soldiers. As the Lada slowed down, I saw that both men wore non-matching pieces of unidentifiable military attire. Combined with their own ragged civilian clothes, the two looked more like clowns than soldiers or militia. I can no longer remember with certainty whether the younger man held an ancient bolt action rifle, but something prevented me from driving away and leaving them in the heat and dust.
The older man leaned into the open passenger side window and with an almost embarrassed, self-deprecating smirk, introduced the two of them as Policia. He told me I was speeding and apologetically ordered me to drive them, at that very moment, to “the magistrate” for a hearing.
I kept my eyes on him and, without saying a word, tried to figure out what to do. Letting these two into the car with me felt like a bad idea. After a few moments of my silence, he cleared his throat politely, reminding me that he was still there. He then added, with all the delicacy he could muster, as if sharing a confidence among gentlemen, that an on-the-spot payment of $30 would suffice to resolve the present misfortune.
Getting mugged would be one aggravation too many after my last few weeks. Although angered and a little frightened, I was in no mood to be on the wrong end of a shakedown. Yet I feared that simply driving away might provoke a bullet through the station wagon’s rear window.
My field notes binder lay next to me on the passenger’s seat. It contained my photo records, lists of contacts, letters of introduction and a few samples of pictures and articles. I opened the binder, conjured up my best semblance of righteous indignation and admonished them both with a “Do you know who I am?” speech while showing them, as evidence of my importance, my international press card, issued by their government, and a letter of instruction from Catholic Relief Services, for whom I was documenting local development projects. I warned of dire but unspecified consequences if they dared to interfere with my present missions, one from the Sandinistas, the other from God.
The older man looked suspiciously at the documents then looked at me and seemed to calculate the odds. He stepped back, and with tattered dignity and resignation, waved me on. “Certainly, Padre, we are just worried for your safety. Do not drive so fast today.” I thanked this hapless couple for their concern and drove away. After driving out of sight, I pulled off the road and took deep breaths until my hands stopped shaking.
After driving another twenty minutes through beautiful and soothing countryside, my agitation subsided and I soon came upon the entrance to Catarina, a small town near Masaya. In Nicaragua, every village had its patron saint and every saint its own festival day, when all work stopped, schools closed, the church opened and music played. I’d arrived on Catarina’s festival day.
Everyone in town, perhaps 150 people, had gathered on Main Street to join in the march and to dance and drink, it seemed, as much as they could. The priest, along with several devout and strong villagers, were carrying a ten foot plaster statue of the Virgin Mary from her sanctuary in the church to a place of honor on a donkey cart at the head of the rag-tag parade.
The statue was followed by men on horses, older women walking and praying, and kids running, prancing and scrambling for the candy being thrown to them by onlookers. A band of tuba, trombone, trumpets and a bass drum played as loud and fast as they could, with no apparent melody or rhythm: brrup brrup brrrruup brrup; boom boom boom; all exuberance and musical chaos.
Several drunk couples danced in an open-air bar made of a tent with no sides. The temperature was over 90 degrees, the air was still and sweat dripped off everyone. Men hung over their women and stumbled to the cacophonous music.
Three hard-looking cowboy types looked incredibly compelling, and although drunk, they had not lost their swagger. I had no idea if they might prove dangerous. One wore a clean purple shirt with a collar, very well dressed by local standards, and had a six inch knife by his side. He was lean and graceful, with hard, finely sculpted features. Most strikingly, he had piercing eyes and a fearless, slightly menacing stare.
I sensed the scene could turn ugly fast; in the past I had been attacked for declining a drunk’s offer of a drink. But I could not resist the guy with those extraordinary eyes. I slowly took out a camera, attached a lens and began taking pictures in the other direction, focusing on an older and surely harmless couple. I had refined this tactic for taking pictures in possibly hostile places over time; it allowed me to test the waters without provoking anyone who did not want to be photographed.
No one objected so I looked over at the cowboy with blazing eyes and nodded. He gave a slight nod in return. I gingerly turned my camera in his direction and began taking pictures of him dancing. He ignored me; a good thing.
The light was terrible and I knew the pictures of him pawing over his fat, gold-toothed girlfriend would not be very good, but he was amazing to look at and he must have known it. He beckoned me over and posed with his arm around two leering buddies. After taking several photos of them together, I moved in on my man, whose smile had become less leering and more bemused.
Suddenly he signaled for me to come outside. We had not exchanged a word and I had no idea what was up, but I followed. He disappeared around the corner for a minute then came back leading a majestic chestnut horse. He swung himself up onto its back, speaking softly to his horse, and then he nudged it into a stylized dance for me. The horse pranced back and forth, all four hooves clopping rhythmically on the cobblestone plaza in front of Catarina’s ancient mission church.
The sun was setting over my shoulder, lighting his face like a spotlight. He stared directly at me, and through the camera, I stared at him. I took twenty or thirty pictures during the few moments man and horse danced in front of me. I believed that the pictures would be strong and I felt thankful, humbled and elated by the connection we’d made. We must have spoken at last, because I remember his name. If still alive, Juan Jose would be about 60 years old now. I never saw him again.
I had to return to New York before the darkroom construction was completed. The very capable Barricada photographer, Hernán, oversaw the final stages of construction, set up the equipment and got the darkroom up and running.
I wanted to spend as much time in Nicaragua as possible. I also wanted to stop doing advertising and corporate photography to become a photojournalist. I went to see Howard Chapnick, the owner and president of the renowned photo agency Black Star.
After I showed him my work and explained that I wanted to join Black Star as photojournalist he asked me how much I was making as an advertising photographer. He then grunted, told me what I’d get paid as a journalist (at best, one tenth as much), and said he thought I was having a midlife crisis. Nonetheless, he advised that I find a “god awful part of the world where there was conflict not yet in the news and start taking pictures.”
My heart and mind were set on going back to Nicaragua so I applied to and was accepted by Impact Visuals Photo Agency. Now I was an accredited photo-journalist and registered as such with the Nicaraguan government. Carlos Fernando gave me a press card from Barricada; I was the only North American ever to receive one.
There were many non-governmental, religious and United Nations affiliated development agencies working in Latin America and I realized that they needed documentary photographs for their magazines and fund raising. They didn’t have the funds to send a photographer from New York, but if I was already in-country, they might gladly give me a few days work to visit their projects and take some pictures.
I researched which agency had projects in each country then wrote to them, telling them that I’d be in Nicaragua (or El Salvador or the Dominican Republic) in March say, and asked if they needed any pictures of their pesticide reduction or healthy baby project.
There were many agencies working in Nicaragua and I secured work from CARE, Plan International and Catholic Relief Services and Maryknoll. I returned to Nicaragua as often as possible, making sixteen trips between July 1987 and May 1991.
Whenever I returned to Nicaragua I’d stop by Barricada. One editor or another would have something for me to photograph. One time, I was sent to a government initiated cooperative farm in the north of the country, near León. Despite the Sandinistas’ invitation to Nicaragua’s rich residents to stay after the 1979 revolution, many had left the country. The Sandinistas had passed a law declaring any property that was abandoned for six months, or any farm that was not worked for six months, would pass to the state. This co-op farm occupied land that had been private and after 8 years the owner was suing for its return.
The owner had also sent armed men to threaten the co-op farmers. I took pictures at a meeting of these farmers and also of people working at the farm. At one point, I photographed a young mother giving her baby a bath outside, using a bowl to spill water over her child who was seated on an improvised table.
Whenever I returned to the U.S. from Latin America, I’d send a selection of pictures to Moisés Sandoval, editor of the Catholic magazine, Maryknoll, and he would invariably buy some to publish. One day, he called to ask if he could to use the baby getting a bath picture as a poster for Baptism in a series he was publishing world-wide for the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. To my great delight, this picture was distributed all over the world.
By the late 1980s, American foreign policy makers realized that the U.S. military and their Contra surrogates were incapable of winning the ground war in Nicaragua. Moreover, the propaganda war against the Sandinistas was failing both inside the U.S. and in the court of world opinion.
In order to make the Sandinistas look like undemocratic “animals at a garden party,” as President Bush described President Ortega, the U.S. repeatedly challenged the Nicaraguan government to prove its commitment to democracy. The actions demanded by the U.S. were untenable for the Nicaraguans – militarily, economically and politically – and the U.S. knew it. The Sandinistas soon caught on and announced, with considerable fanfare, their compliance to each succeeding U.S. demand. Although many of the Nicaraguan responses had nothing do to with the U.S. demands, by stating their agreement publicly, the Nicaraguans appeared in the world press as the democratic David in the face of the aggressor U.S. Goliath.
For example, in 1989, the U.S. demanded the release of all political prisoners in Nicaragua. The Sandinista government responded by announcing that, as a humanitarian gesture, it would release the last prisoners held since the 1979 revolution. These men were not actually political prisoners. The journalists who had been covering Nicaragua since the 70s knew many of them by name. They were known to have been the worst of Somoza’s worst: the torturers, sadists, murderers and rapists; the killers of students, union leaders, intellectuals and poets; the leaders of the National Guard death squads. By releasing them, the Sandinistas showed the world exactly who the U.S.-backed political opposition were: war criminals.
Thus one morning, the international press was invited to the prison in Tipitapa, near Managua, where prisoners were lined up in a large parade ground. Their faces did not match the crimes they were imprisoned for; they looked like regular everyday people. Two soldiers sat down at tables in front of the prisoners and began calling names. Each prisoner had his release papers stamped several times and signed. They were then free to walk around the table into the arms of waiting family and friends. These three pictures are from that day:
The Contra war was deeply painful to all Nicaraguans. The human and material sacrifices made to defend the country, and the compulsory draft into the armed forces was beginning to demoralize the entire population and turn popular sentiment against the Sandinistas.
The U.S. kept pressing the Sandinistas to have elections, knowing it could pour millions of dollars of illegal campaign contributions to whoever ran against Ortega. Finally, the Sandinistas agreed to have elections in February 1990, supervised by the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) In exchange, the U.N. and O.A.S. brokered a ceasefire and the Contras agreed to disarm.
Safe zones were established deep in the countryside, in areas between Sandinista Army (EPS) and Contra control, where the Contras had free passage to disarm and leave. The Contras were particularly nervous about surrendering their arms in close proximity to the Sandinista Army. The situation was volatile because anything could have been used as an excuse to break the ceasefire.
I usually traveled with other journalists who had years of experience photographing wars, but on my first trip to photograph the Contras disarming, I joined a younger group of journalists. It was the first foray into a combat zone for the car’s driver.
We drove slowly by the last outpost of the EPS, soldiers and camouflaged trucks all lined up on a bluff overlooking the road then we sped up to about 35mph. As we rounded a bend, we saw a single soldier’s boot standing upright in the middle of the road. We screamed at the driver to slow down. She gingerly crept around the boot at a crawl. We held our breaths but nothing came of the forlorn boot.
We then came upon a meeting of Sandinista and Contra Army officers. This was one of the first contacts between both armies. The soldiers were not happy about running into a car full of photographers.
Another time, Bill Gentile, Scott Wallace, an Associated Press photographer and I went far into Chontales Province, past La Libertad, where the Ortega brothers were born, to track down a large group of Contra soldiers rumored to be located about 110 miles from Managua. We left at lunchtime but as much of the drive was along 20 mph country roads, did not arrive until late afternoon.
Just as we arrived, 5 Contra officers hiked down the clay pack road to an encampment of about 50 soldiers. Many of the soldiers were teens, including a few girls. Some were sleeping, one was sewing a shirt. They had just slaughtered a cow and its carcass lay bloody and open on the ground. The soldiers were roasting beef kebobs over a fire. They allowed us to stick around but I could feel them tense up when I got too close with my camera.
We stayed for less than an hour. It was nearing sunset and we didn’t want to have to drive in the countryside combat zone in the dark. After half an hour of driving along the dirt road out of Chontales, we encountered two jeeps blocking the road, their head lights blinding us. We braked to a stop and were quickly surrounded by a group of Contras. At gunpoint, they accused us of being with the Sandinistas.
The AP photographer was wearing combat boots, breaking one of the cardinal rules of covering war: never wear military gear if you’re not a soldier. The leader of the group kept asking the AP guy to go for a walk with him down the road. We said “No, no, no. We’re all staying together.” Bill and Scott, talking a mile a minute, told the Contras that we were international journalists, that we were impartial, and that we were telling their side of the story too.
The Contras searched our jeep for guns. When they found none, they took our money, cigarettes, Scott’s watch and his brand new leather camera bag. Then one of them asked Bill if he had ever killed anybody. Bill replied that it would not turn out well for them if they hurt us; this would cause them loss of support in the U.S. That seemed to give them pause. I asked one of them for a cigarette – he even lit it for me.
During the whole ordeal, I kept forcing myself to focus on practical things like listening to Bill and judging the distance between where I was standing and the bushes, just in case they started shooting. I also wondered if I could jump one of them and grab his gun. When seen in the movies, this move had always looked easy, but in that moment it seemed like a terrible idea. I felt calm but my right leg was vibrating like a guitar string. After an exchange of glances, they let us go, shaken but whole.
On another day, we came across hundreds of Contra soldiers and poor farmers (campesinos) gathered in a field, listening to an address from the Contra Commander, Israel Galeano (nom de guerre, Cmdte Franklin). I was surprised at how young he looked, and that he was a little plump for a soldier. He appeared to be without guile and did not have a very threatening presence. I’d seen more than a few scarier Contras by then and Cmdte Franklin just did not measure up.
Franklin was having a great deal of trouble with his speech. It was clear that someone else had written it. He seemed to be attempting to recite the speech from memory and was not doing very well. He kept repeating whole sections and getting paragraphs out of order. He rambled on and on until we were all, Contra soldiers, farmers, and journalists alike, just about fainting from exhaustion and heat.
The main opposition party to the Sandinistas, the National Opposition Union (UNO), chose Violeta Barrios Chamorro, the widow of a national martyr, to run against Ortega for President of the country. Doña Violeta was more patrician than politician. Like many Nicaraguan families, two of her children had fought with the revolution and two against it. Her son, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, was editor of Barricada and as such my boss.
In the summer of 1989, Arturo told me that Carlos Fernando wanted to talk with me. Carlos explained that Barricada had just received a donation of color ink for its presses from Russia (then still the Soviet Union) and could now begin to publish in color. He asked me if I would travel with President Daniel Ortega, during the election campaign, and take color pictures for the newspaper. We would leave in a few days. I felt excited and eager to meet Ortega, a real revolutionary, and hero to me at the time.
Carlos arrived on Saturday morning, Nicaragua-style, an hour late. He drove without speaking a word during the sixty-five mile drive from Managua to the campaign rally in Rivas. We were doing about 85mph on a two lane road. I was terrified and wondered if I’d survive the ride.
We got to the rally moments before Ortega was to begin his speech on a raised platform that had been set up for the event. Carlos seemed to know everyone as we hurried up a few stairs and onto the stage. I knelt down over my camera bag and began to attach lenses and check film. Ortega walked over, stuck out his hand and said, “Que tal?” (How are you doing?)
I had the dual sensation of talking normally with Daniel Ortega – “I’m Fine thanks, Mr. President,” and making suggestions like “From time to time why don’t you take off your hat?” or “Please stand over there,” – while at the same time feeling like I was watching myself in a movie; talking with Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, barely able to believe this was happening.
I traveled with Ortega almost every weekend for the next several months, photographing him as the campaign evolved: giving speeches, holding babies, throwing baseballs, riding on horseback, laughing and angry.
Ortega campaigned literally in the arms of the people, with very little security. Campaign days began at 5am and went into the evening. One time, while in a crowd, a motherly woman took him in her arms and held his face in her hands. At first, he tried to pull back, like a teenager squirming away from his mother’s embrace, but then he relaxed and gave into the hug, listening to what she had to say.
Another time, after a speech at a rodeo, deep in ultra conservative cattle country, after a 12 hour day in 90 plus degree heat, I marveled at Ortega talking into the night with two rich strongly anti-Sandinista ranchers, trying to persuade them to work with the government and not against it. It was just the three of them, off to the side, no press, no audience; Ortega fervently trying to convince them that their interests also lay within the revolution. This showed the depth of his commitment to the Nicaraguan people.
The campaign flew to the Caribbean coast, a part of Nicaragua that was populated by English speaking descendants of freed African slaves and Miskito, Sumu and Rama; indigenous peoples who spoke their own languages. Neither group liked the Sandinistas. Nevertheless, a crowd had been organized to meet Ortega’s plane at the airport.
Earlier that week, Contra soldiers had attacked a school bus and killed all on board, including some young Miskito nuns. Ortega wanted to call on the mother of one of the slain nuns. I went along, in a caravan of jeeps, driving for miles and miles. The woman’s home was a shack perched precariously on stilts over low lying water. Ortega’s security guys did not want him to go inside; they were worried about the house collapsing.
I had to wait outside on the porch, next to a large glassless opening of a window. I could see inside but could not move around. The dead girl’s mother, father and family were inconsolable. Ortega spoke with them but it was not clear if they understood Spanish. Finally, he just bowed his head and stood in front of the mother. I noticed that behind her was a poster of Jesus with his chest open and his bleeding heart exposed.
The Sandinistas enlisted the great Nicaragua novelist, Sergio Ramirez as Ortega’s vice president and running mate. Sergio had grown up in a city and had been a writer all his life. When the campaign called upon Sergio to ride on horseback in the countryside, he gamely complied, although privately he was very nervous because he’d never ridden a horse before.
On several occasions, we went into areas of armed combat with Contra forces. We’d travel in jeeps accompanied by two or three large army trucks filled with soldiers. There would be little talking, the mood somber, with Ortega cradling an AK47 on his lap.
Once, I flew with Ortega and about 8 other government officials northward, toward Honduras, deep into Contra territory. The Nicaraguan Air Force Hind Mi-25 armored helicopter, a gift from the Soviet Union, was bristling with high caliber machine guns and anti-missile defenses. In order to avoid being a target for heat seeking missiles we flew at high speed, tree top level, over the rising mountains and falling valleys. The Russian-made Hind was deafeningly noisy. We were all tense; Ortega leaned on the helicopter open doorway and looked out over the countryside where the Contras were hiding.
The campaign rallies were large productions. Ortega would travel with one or several of the other ruling junta commandantes. An advance team would build a stage and a put up a sound system. Music played and t-shirts were thrown to the crowd as pretty Sandinista girls took Polaroids of people posing with Ortega. Following the warm-up speeches came the main speech, in which Ortega would castigate U.S. imperialism and the Contra war being waged against poor Nicaragua. He’d proselytize for the Sandinista Revolution and the Nicaraguan people.
During all the weeks of the campaign, and all the time I spent standing just two feet from Ortega, I never said more than “Hola, como estas?” Granted, we were both busy working, but given the opportunity, I found myself tongue-tied around making conversation with the revolutionary president of a country at war with the U.S.
My pictures made during the Ortega campaign were published in color every week, sometimes taking up the entire first page of Barricada. It became apparent too late that the Barricada printing press, paper and color ink were incompatible, resulting in all its color pictures appearing out of register.
In order not to have a North American name as a byline of pictures of President Ortega, and perhaps to keep myself out of the potentially unwelcome radar of the U.S. government, I used the nom de guerre ‘Foto Maya’ for my Barricada pictures. Soon, many of the journalists and photographers at the newspaper addressed me as ‘Foto Maya.’
The Sandinistas lost the election. As I photographed the opposition party celebration I noticed the Vice President elect, Virgilio Godoy, a hard-line rightwing politician, passing a note to their chief political strategist, Princeton and Harvard graduate Antonio Lacayo, who would actually run the government for Mrs. Chamorro. Lacayo read the note, ripped it up into small pieces then dumped the pieces into an ashtray.
Although the note might be Godoy’s post-party pizza order, I thought it could be interesting and as people began to leave, I held my breath, brushed against the table where the ashtray was and inconspicuously slipped the entire ashtray into my pocket. Later, I placed the torn pieces in a baggy and passed them along to someone who could get them to Sandinista intelligence. I never learned whether the note was a pizza order or something more strategic.
In the weeks before the election, journalists had discussed credible rumors that the right-wing death squads were forming in Managua to go after the Sandinistas and their foreign sympathizers. As I returned to my house that night, a group of well dressed, 20-something, rich Nicaraguans threatened me on the street and ordered me, as a ‘Sandinista sympathizing journalist’, to leave the country immediately. I was living in a government supplied guest house along with a Mexican writer who had had to flee death squads in Chile, in 1972, and Argentina in 1977. This time, Nacho was prepared with a squat, ugly, black Czech machine gun. He and I spent the night waiting, talking, smoking and drinking wine.
During their time in office, from 1979 to 1990, the Sandinistas kept track of the thousands of foreign volunteers and journalists in order to determine who was legitimate, who was crazy, and who was a saboteur. This had been done by the Minister of the Interior and we assumed they’d kept files on all of us.
Once, before the election, I’d borrowed a car from a Barricada reporter. Her husband had brought the car to Barricada for me and then asked me to drive him to work at MINT (Ministry of the Interior) headquarters. I’d introduced myself and began to tell him what I was doing in Nicaragua but he’d interrupted me. “Oh, we know you, Jeff.” He gave me a friendly smile, removed his 45 caliber automatic pistol from the glove compartment and went off to work.
After the Sandinistas lost the election, we were told that the MINT would cleanse its files of all “friendly’s” to prevent them from being passed into the wrong hands by the new right-wing government.
During the 1990s, I continued traveling to Nicaragua whenever possible, on assignments from religious and United Nations development agencies. I also went to see a close friend, Esmeralda Zapata, who I’d met on my first trip to Nicaragua, in 1987. Esme and I married in 1998.
It has been a great tragedy to see the Sandinista Revolution evolve into a corrupt fiefdom of the Ortega family, and Nicaragua’s poverty rate increase following his re-election in 2011. After Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras compete for second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, in Nicaragua, the poor have stayed poor and the revolutionary promises of the original Sandinistas remain unfulfilled. I, along with thousands of other journalists and supporters, had hoped to see something better come of the Sandinista Revolution.
 American University Professor William LeoGrande, writing in the introduction to William Frank Gentile’s Nicaragua