Saturday, February 16, 2019

Among Contras and Zambos

“Nicaragua Was Our Home” is an interesting documentary, or rather propaganda piece, about the Contra War against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980´s. The piece is pro-Contra and depicts the Sandinistas as marauding genocidal butchers and anti-Christians. The film maker, Lee Shapiro, was later killed in Afghanistan during another daring attempt to tape an anti-Communist documentary. It´s not clear whether he was killed by the Soviets or simply mugged and murdered by the Muslim fundamentalists he had accompanied into Soviet-occupied territory. Shapiro was a “Moonie”, a member of the South Korea-based Unification Church, which is strongly anti-Communist. The Moonies claim to be Christians, but critics regard them as a cult. Note the irony of a “Christian” group supporting the Islamist rebels in Afghanistan…

Shapiro´s film about Nicaragua is taped in western Nicaragua, inhabited by the Miskitos and several other Native (“Indian”) groups, as well as by Creoles. The Miskitos supported the 1979 revolution against the hated US-backed dictator Somoza, but soon had a fall out with the Sandinistas (the FSLN), the dominant force in the anti-Somocista movement. The Sandinistas, dominated by Spanish-speakers from eastern Nicaragua, refused to recognize the Miskito demands for self-government and Native land rights in the western part of the country. By 1981, the political conflict had turned violent, many Miskitos taking up arms and siding with the US-backed Contras, who wanted to overthrow the FSLN government. The Sandinista army responded by forced deportations of thousands of Miskitos from the war zone, ostensibly to “protect” them but in reality to undercut civilian support of the Contra forces. Many Miskitos fled the country, ending up in refugee camps in Honduras (where the Contras had their bases). In 1987, the FSLN did grant autonomy to the Natives and Creoles of western Nicaragua, but by then it was probably too late to turn the tide. In 1990, the Sandinistas were voted out of power (they are back again today). The two autonomous regions still exist, however.

For obvious reasons, I can´t judge the concrete charges made by Shapiro in “Nicaragua Was Our Home”. He claims that the crimes of the Sandinista army include the deliberate burning of churches, the bombing of entire villages, sheer plunder, and so on. What makes the documentary interesting is that it also shows Miskito culture. Many of the Miskitos are clearly mixed race (Black-Native) and speak Creole English alongside their native language. Indeed, many look more Black than Indian. Spanish is only spoken by the Miskito leaders who were educated at Managua or in Cuba. They are apparently defectors from the FSLN. The culture of the Miskitos is heavily centered on Christianity, with the Moravian Brethren (of all groups!) being the main denomination. Others are Catholic, and some of the people interviewed are foreign Catholic missionaries active in the area. The entire area looks isolated and frankly primitive. Fishing for subsistence seems to be the main economic activity. The documentary also features the Contras, and even shows a battle between Contra forces and Sandinistas, with Shapiro trying to tape the action at a decidedly unsafe distance.

If you can stomach the propaganda aspects of this production, I actually recommend it as a kind of political-ethnographic study…

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