After the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, world wide support and friendship poured into Nicaragua. This took many forms, one of the most creative being the creation of Sister City projects. These were municipal affiliations in which cities and towns in the US, Europe, and other places partnered with Nicaraguan communities. The foreign cities made visits, developed projects, and provided resources in a myriad of different forms. In return they got friendship, deep cross culture experiences and a sense of being on the right side of history. For activists in the United States, as the aggression of the Reagan administration toward the fledgling government escalated, sister city arrangements became more and more important for standing in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua, against vicious, right wing machinations.
In April of 1988 the Providence, RI, City Council issued a proclamation recognizing Niquinohomo, Nicaragua, as Providence’s sister city. This was the official government seal of approval that came following many months of studying, organizing, planning and collaboration to create the relationship. Many had taken part, but Richard Walton stood out as the group’s charismatic, if informal, leader. Richard, who died in 2012, was a well-known and beloved Rhode Island character. He was a journalist, disc jockey, author of a dozen books, teacher, union organizer, world traveler, music promoter, and raconteur. He was dedicated to the Sister City Project, but also to other causes including Amos House, a homeless shelter where he cooked and stayed overnight with the residents on a regular basis. For twenty years he organized his birthday parties as fund raisers to help out the people of Niquinohomo. It is worth quoting at length from the invitation to his 80th birthday to give you a sense of the man’s energies and character:
“Ever since they started in 1988, they’ve probably been the biggest annual social gathering of peaceniks, economic/social justice activists, progressives, liberals, all-round lefties and folkies in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut. I’m speaking, modestly of course, about the annual potluck, fund-raising birthday parties of Richard Walton to benefit Amos House and the Providence-Niquinohomo [Nicaragua] Sister City Project. Over the years since my 60th birthday, we’ve collected about $65,000. It’s a pretty good place for a party. Plenty of room for grownups, kids, dogs, Frisbees and last year even a 1920s Model T Ford showed up and gave guests rides around the neighborhood. So not only come, but please help spread the word. It’s an INclusive party not an EXclusive one and, quite literally, the more the merrier. Even some conservatives have been known to enjoy themselves but no reactionaries. They wouldn’t be seen dead with the likes of us.” (Philippe and Jorge, May 13, 2009, Old Fart at Play, The Providence Phoenix)
Early in its history, the project came to the attention of New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer. Regarding the sister city project he said, “…the more than 40 Providence-area residents who came… to build the clinic here dislike the Reagan Administration’s opposition to the Nicaraguan Government and they are showing their dissent in a practical way. Although thousands of Americans have traveled to Nicaragua to show solidarity with the Sandinista Government in one way or another, few have left as tangible a legacy as the group from Providence.”
The health clinic, which took a few years to complete, was followed by a rural school, and then campaigns to supply medicine, then money to buy medicine, and then school supplies. A bilingual book of poetry was published. Back in the States there were fundraisers of various types besides the birthday bashes, my favorite of which was an annual bowl-a-thon described in one flyer as, “fast becoming a Rhode Island cultural institution.”
Over a period of twenty years, the material contributions to Niquinohmo were substantial. However, it is hard to argue with Richard Walton’s evaluation that the real value of the project was in relationships. “Sister City is no longer just a facile relationship, no longer just one of transient political solidarity. There now exists between the two cities a complex, many stranded human fabric that will endure… It is a relationship too intricate for any of us to fully understand… Mr. Reagan may be able to sabotage for a while longer the peace Nicaragua needs, but come next summer there will be a… brigade in that dusty old town, drawing even closer those two perhaps unlikely cities… in war or peace, for a good many summers to come.” (Richard Walton, “A Lasting Relationship”, The New Paper, December 7, 1987.)
I’ve been friends with Martin Lepkowski for many years. He is a high energy, philosophical, deeply religious man. I love it when he addresses me as “brother” in the old lefty, Christian manner. Martin dug into his archives and provided me with much of the documentation for this essay. Between 1987 and 1994 he made six trips to Nicaragua. He went to pick coffee, to build a health clinic and to express his opposition to the US’s Contra War.
“I felt so blessed to be there,” he told me recently when we met for lunch. “This is when I really got radicalized. I went from a liberal to a radical. I’d be talking to a campesina and she’d be telling me my history. She knew my history better than I did. She knew that the first US bomb dropped from a biplane was dropped on Nicaragua. (Confirming Martin’s statement, this website leads to a very detailed history of the US Marine Corps’ use of Nicaragua as a testing ground for the development of aerial war protocols, including dropping that first bomb. US aggression in Nicaragua was midwife to modern aerial warfare.)
On his trips with the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project and other organizations, Martin reports he had other experiences that radicalized him. He met a woman who had lost her husband to the Somoza Dictatorship and her son to the Contra War. He learned of a fifteen year old who was murdered for teaching other kids to read. He was deeply moved by the dedication and self-sacrifice of Father Miguel D’Escoto. In summary, he says, “I call myself a Sandinista.”
During those years Martin spent a lot of time lobbying Senator Claiborne Pell. Once in the Senator’s office, while describing what he had seen in Nicaragua, Martin began to cry. The Senator, every inch the patrician Yankee, said, “Martin, this is not a psychiatrist’s couch.” Not long after that, Martin had his fiftieth birthday party. He put the quote on the invitation and made it a fundraiser for the Sister City Project.
William Smith had been a Peace Corps volunteer in India and returned frequently for visits. Then, in 1986, The Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project invited him to go to Nicaragua. They were beginning construction on a health center. The roof was going to be made of Russian steel and they needed a welder. Thirty plus years later, drinking coffee in his house in Jamestown, Rhode Island, William talks about the people and events that left an impression on him during that first visit.
“They had arranged home stays for us and when I walked into my host family’s house I saw the most beautiful girl I had ever laid eyes on. I figured I was going to have to learn Spanish quick.” It took him a year and another trip to Niquinohomo to convince Rosi Vidaurre to marry him. “Our kids are all bilingual thanks to Rosi. She didn’t want me speaking Spanish to them because she didn’t want them to pick up my lousy accent.” The family commuted back and forth to Nicaragua, often several times a year. They have a house in Niquinohomo and in 1993 they started a business there as well.
Fine Wood Carving builds beautiful custom furniture based on traditional designs. It is worth spending some time on the website to see the craftsmanship coming out of this small Nicaraguan town. “For awhile we were the biggest employer in Niquinohomo. We had fifty people working for us.” Business went down when the housing market crashed, but the workshop is still a going concern, still contributing to the economy of Niquinohomo.
Back in 1986, when William first arrived in Nicaragua, the construction site where the clinic was being built was at the opposite end of town from his host family. Every day he walked through town on his way to work. It was the height of the US Contra War to overthrow the revolution. Young men were being conscripted to fight for the Sandinistas. A military truck loaded with teenagers passed William as he walked to work. The boys cheered him. “I was really struck by that,” he says today. “They knew I was trying to help and they didn’t hold the war against me.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1987, Senator Pell visited Niquinohomo, Nicaragua to see the work of the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project. At the time he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He later wrote about his experience in an opinion piece in The Providence Journal. (The exact date it appeared is unclear.) He said, “I was familiar with the Program through communication with various participants…” by which he undoubtedly meant the lobbying efforts of Martin and others in the group. He closes his piece in this way, “Farewells were exchanged… I expressed my hope that peace would soon come to Nicaragua… As I walked down the street toward our vehicle, I thought of how proud I was of the Providence sister city volunteers for making such a significant contribution.” One contribution was to create an engaging political platform, with a positive story to tell, to counteract the lies and misrepresentations being put out by the proponents of the Contra War. Participants could recount personal experiences more powerful than right wing propaganda. Every flier for a pot luck dinner, every newsletter, every announcement of a bowl-a-thon became an opportunity to spread the truth and influence US policy.
The project had a good run. After twenty years, key people died, got old, had health problems, and/or moved on to other priorities. Although, there are still imperialistic threats to Nicaragua, like the vile NICA Act, the country can take care of itself and we will probably not see the level of political activism that was necessitated by the Contra War. Nonetheless, the history is well worth remembering and turning to for inspiration.
I am planning on writing a part 2 to this essay. I want to go to Niquinohomo to learn about the project from a Nicaraguan point of view.
- In remarks during the Central American Monetary Council Meeting in Managua, Alejandro Werner, director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the Western Hemisphere said Nicaragua has one of the most solid economies in the region. “We believe the Nicaragua economy is growing in a healthy manner, with a good performance, creating favorable conditions to attract more investments and more sources of employment,” the IMF representative said. The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) also announced the approval of US$2 billion to support the Nicaragua Country Strategy 2018-2022. “The new funding represents an increase of 14.3% over the 2013-2017 period. These resources will be used to support highway infrastructure, potable water services, affordable housing, energy projects and climate change mitigation,” the CABEI stated. And, during his recent visit to Managua, Jorge de la Caballeria, European Union General Director for Development and Cooperation, reaffirmed the commitment of the EU to continue to support the efforts of the Nicaraguan government in the fight against poverty. “We must acknowledge the high quality of how things are being done here in Nicaragua and that is why we want to continue to work with the government in this successful country strategy,” he said. These expressions of confidence in the Nicaraguan government belie the premise of the US NICA Act that Nicaragua is a corrupt state with a poor human rights record. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 2)
- The President of the Nicaragua Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR), Lucy Valenti, said the final tourism report presented this week states that in 2017 the sector generated US$840 million. “It is an extraordinary result because it represents an increase of 30.9% compared to the results of 2016,” Valenti said. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 1)
- Republican Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), who supported the NICA Act in the House of Representatives, has turned against the Act that would cut off US support for international loans to Nicaragua. He is lobbying the Senate against the bill along with Nicaraguan business leaders. Right-wing fellow Republican representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, primary sponsor of the offensive NICA Act, was not amused. “I don’t know what Rooney’s about, but it was not appreciated. It’s just uncool,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald. Please continue to tell your Senators to oppose the NICA Act. It is not clear from press reports if the NICA Act in the Senate is identical to the version passed by the House. The El Nuevo Diario story says the Act includes an exception for loans that meet basic human needs or promote democracy and calls for the State Department to issue two reports, one on alleged corruption and human rights violations by Nicaraguan government officials and the other on “the degree of cooperation of the governments of Russian and Venezuela with the Government of Nicaragua.” If the versions of the bill passed by the two houses of Congress are not identical, a conference committee composed of representatives of each chamber will be required to iron out the differences. (El Nuevo Diario, Mar. 2; Miami Herald, Mar. 1)
- The Nicaragua Central Bank report on 2017 imports showed a growth of 3.4% over 2016 for a total of US$6.09 billion. Consumer goods grew by 1%, intermediate goods by 3.9%, and capital goods fell by 5.2% reflecting a reduction of telecommunications equipment, transport, and office equipment. Medicine and medical equipment represented most of the growth in consumer goods. And, while the import of durable goods fell overall, washing machines and televisions showed strong growth showing the improvement in family economies. Countering that trend was a decrease in the import of construction materials. (Informe Pastran, Mar. 5)