Defying Washington : Private U.S. Aid--Boon to Sandinistas

Times Staff Writer

Along the dirt streets of this war-weary town near the Honduran border, a new preschool is going up, newly installed chlorinators will soon treat the community’s well water, and studies are under way for a sanitary sewer system. In a town just to the south, a primary school is under construction.

All of these projects have two things in common: They have thus far escaped the violence of the war waged on Nicaragua by American-backed rebels or contras --and they are all the work of Americans.

More important, they are signs of a virtually unnoticed but massive flow of aid to Nicaragua from U.S. citizens--materials, labor, money, health care and educational and technical assistance worth at least $24.8 million thus far.

For even as President Reagan declares the Sandinista government a threat to U.S. security, citizen efforts are growing across the United States to help those the Sandinistas govern.

Pragmatism, Defiance

Those efforts are part pragmatism, part humanitarianism and part a brassy defiance of official U.S. policy intended to undo the toll of war exacted with U.S. support.

“Obviously, what we’re doing is in direct contradiction of the policies of the Administration, which is sponsoring the destruction of clinics like this,” Bryan Rudnavaara, 35, a New York construction worker, said as he looked over a $45,000 health clinic being built by Vecino, a Boston group, in the Nicaraguan town of Esteli. “The contras burned a health clinic last month near Miraflor. We’re trying to make up for that.”


“It’s better to educate these people than to shoot at them,” said Larry Calvin, 51, a Sitka, Alaska, businessman, by way of explaining the $2,000 he has given for the school just south of Jalapa in Tastasli. “It’s better to help than shoot. I have three sons, and there’s no way I want my sons down there trying to kill people for trying to better themselves. They are very, very desperate for education.”

‘They Have a Right’

Joel Edelstein, board member of the Boulder (Colo.)-Jalapa Friendship City Project, which is building the preschool here, said Americans helping Nicaraguans “share a view that rejects military solutions except in the ultimate danger to national security. Nicaragua will make mistakes. They have a right to. But we think they have a right to run their country.”

The flow of support to Nicaragua compares to an estimated $15 million to $25 million contributed to the contras by private U.S. sources since Congress ended covert military aid to them last year. In June, urged on by the Administration, Congress voted to provide $27 million in non-combat support to the contras.

Official reaction to the private efforts to improve the lives of those on the other side of the struggle is guarded.

“The U.S. government has not taken a position against groups that provide what is called humanitarian aid,” John Blacken, deputy coordinator for the State Department’s office of public diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, said. “The kind of help they’re providing cannot be opposed.”

But Blacken added, “The general feeling is that many groups are pro-Sandinista . . . and, whether they know it or not, they are supporting a Marxist-Leninist government. I think the Sandinistas have learned how to manipulate groups very well.”

There are more than 200 local and national organizations seeking to help Nicaragua, and at least $23.1 million in collective aid has been funneled into the country by or through 31 major U.S. organizations since the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, according to aid estimates provided by the groups.

Free-Lance Volunteers

At least another $1.7 million more in services has also been provided, ranging from the volunteer cotton and coffee pickers from a group called the Nicaragua Exchange in New York to the $500,000 worth of free professional help supplied by TechNICA in Santa Monica. In addition, individuals like Calvin have sent money and materials outside of organized efforts, and additional free-lance volunteers have simply come to Nicaragua to help of their own accord.

This relief effort has grown rapidly in recent months and is expected to intensify as additional groups become active. A major fund-raising effort is under way by a New York group to fund a $500,000 cancer treatment facility in Managua, for example, and in November, Topanga-based Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua will begin construction of 50 single family homes in Pancasan, at a cost of $50,000.

Mark Left by Contras

The private foreign aid effort to help Nicaragua has drawn in city councils, the state of Minnesota, professional groups, religious groups and individuals. And the fruits of their assistance are as visible as the damaged bridges, the destroyed health centers and the burned warehouses left by the contras. Some examples:

--Seven Toyota ambulances have been purchased for Nicaragua by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a 46-year-old organization of veterans who fought with Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In Managua, an orange-and-white ambulance from the New York-based MADRE organization prowls the streets.

--A serious shortage of aspirin here has been largely alleviated by the Quixote Center, an independent Roman Catholic organization in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, which says that in just 20 months, it has sent over $7 million in medical equipment, food, clothing and school supplies in bi-monthly shipments to Nicaragua.

--Sewing machines, used dental equipment, medicine and school supplies valued at $750,000 have been sent to Leon from New Haven, Conn., one of an estimated 15 sister-city projects pairing U.S. communities with Nicaraguan cities.

In the process of providing this assistance, thousands of foot-soldier-diplomats, about 3,000 alone from the 31 groups surveyed by The Times, have gone to Nicaragua, and many are returning to the United States with accounts of personal experiences contradicting the Administration’s portrait of life in Nicaragua under what Reagan calls a “Communist dictatorship.”

‘A Great Discrepancy’

“I see a great discrepancy with what we’re being told back home and this country.” said Don Eischen, 40, a clinical psychologist with the Adams County public schools in Colorado who came here to help build the Boulder project’s preschool. “We’re being told that it’s a totalitarian state, that the people are enslaved, that the Sandinistas have lost support and the people are under the yoke.

“But the people we’re meeting are people who clearly have benefited from the revolution and are very involved in shaping their lives and the lives of the people around them. They are empowered, and there’s a sense of excitement. They have control over their lives for the first time.”

“Before the revolution, I couldn’t read,” Aura Estela Martinez, 46, told the Boulder group over one of the lunches she prepared for them. “Since the revolution, I am up to the sixth grade.

‘Go Back? Never’

“Before, I couldn’t go into a restaurant because I didn’t have clothes to wear,” Martinez went on. “Now I own a restaurant with a loan from the bank. I have a five-year loan to buy beds for a guest house. Before the revolution, my husband was a deliveryman. Now he has two vehicles. . . . I have two sons in secondary school. They go without paying one cent--nothing. They can aspire to things. The 17-year-old wants to be a doctor. Go back? Never. Never.”

As a result of their personal experiences here, many Americans are returning to the United States to speak out against U.S. policy toward Nicaragua.

“I hope to be active in anti-war organizing when I get back,” said Cathleen A. Fogel, 21, a junior from Pacific Palisades who is studying international relations at the University of Colorado and who helped organize a campus flea market that raised $3,000 for the preschool. “What I want most is for the United States to get the hell out.

‘All Help Is Important’

“All of our help is important, but the main thing now is (ending U.S. aid to the contras). I’m going to be working with other students in Central America support groups.”

To plumb the American experience of helping Nicaragua, a Times reporter recently accompanied a 16-person “work brigade” from Colorado, the third such group from the Boulder area this summer to come to Jalapa to work for a week with Nicaraguan construction workers building the new preschool. For four days the group roamed Nicaragua in a government tour bus, meeting with government officials, visiting with local citizens.

The signs of the revolution of 1979 were everywhere--buildings still pockmarked from bullets, memorials to fallen youth and the omnipresent graffiti, “Ni se vende, ni se rinde” (“Don’t sell out, don’t give up”).

Finally, two small pickup trucks took them on the dusty ride north to Jalapa, with construction materials and school and medical supplies all but crowding them out of the trucks. Mortar fire, government helicopters and tanks provided a backdrop of war, for their trip coincided with the biggest contra offensive in several years, and twice they had to walk across bridges damaged by contra saboteurs.

Initiative in Boulder

The preschool is the outgrowth of a November, 1983, voter initiative directing the Boulder City Council to inform Congress and the President that Boulder opposes military involvement in Central America. Boulder, a foothills university community of 78,000 near Denver, then began a longer-range expression of that sentiment by the city council’s “adoption” of Jalapa in January, 1984.

Jalapa is an agricultural center of about 3,000 people, and last year the Friendship City Project raised funds to take a five-member delegation from Jalapa to Boulder.

“We want to get to know the people of Jalapa,” Boulder Councilman Homer Page said. “We want the people of Jalapa to get to know the people of Boulder. And we want to share some of our material well-being in a noncondescending, economically productive way.

“The political issues are not what we’re concerned with. It’s people-to-people relations.”

U. of Colorado Project

With various fund-raising activities, the Friendship City Project raised $34,000 for the preschool, which was designed, for academic credit, by architecture students at the University of Colorado.

This summer, construction began with the help of nearly 50 Colorado residents, who, under a hot tropical sun, worked side by side with Nicaraguan construction workers being paid by the 2,000 to 3,000 Boulder residents who contributed to the preschool fund.

Those who came were an eclectic assortment of the curious and the committed. Some, like Thomas M. Simpson, a 30-year-old Boulder dentist, came simply to help people in need and to poke at the riddle of Nicaragua.

“I question authority, and I wanted to learn and experience for myself what is going on down here,” said Simpson, who instead of doing construction labor on the preschool worked in the Jalapa dental clinic treating civilians and soldiers alike. “I came looking for an answer to the simple question, ‘Why are we at war with these people?’ In no way can you find that out in two weeks, but you can get a feel for it.”

An Act of Solidarity

Still others came in an outright act of solidarity with the Sandinista government.

“I believed before coming down that the revolution and the Sandinistas were good,” said Diane J. Cooper, 25, who teaches American history and German at Greeley West High School in Greeley, Colo. “But good or bad, it’s Nicaragua’s choice. It shouldn’t even be an issue in the U.S. It shouldn’t matter to anyone in the U.S., except out of curiosity, what they do with their new society.”

For some in the group, there were surprises. “I found out it wasn’t as communist as I thought it would be, and I don’t think they’re trying to be,” said Carol Moe of Boulder, 66, a former Methodist missionary in the Philippines. “It’s not as regimented as I thought it might be. . . . “

“What I didn’t expect,” Simpson, the dentist, said, “is what I consider the spirit of the people--a lot of people’s lives have been improved by the revolution, and they are going to stand by it. ‘Ni se vende, ni se rinde, ' and I believe it.”

Setting an Example

Others in the group also talked of their reasons for coming. For Brenda J. Lyle, 33, executive director of the struggling San Juan Learning Center for low-income children in Boulder, the trip was an opportunity to set an example for international peace activists who ignore problems at home.

“Those people traditionally involved in the peace movement--there’s not the same commitment to poverty in their own community,” she said. “On the one hand, these people are so committed to people down here, but they won’t help kids (in the United States). I really believe you can do both. . . . You need to do both. This was my opportunity to put my beliefs into action.”

“I wanted to work side by side with Nicaraguans,” Daniel H. Tate, a 30-year-old special education teacher at Nederland (Colo.) High School, said. “It shows there are North Americans who are caring and sensitive. The preschool says we care, we’re not brutal. . . . It demonstrates to the people of Nicaragua there’s another side (to the United States).”

And for the Nicaraguans themselves, such help has been well received. Project superintendent Hernan Castro Castillo, speaking of the men in his construction crew whose children will use the new preschool when it is completed early next year, said, “We can live better because we have all worked together.”

Times researcher Dallas Jamison in Denver contributed to this article.