Red Christmas

So, it happened that a United Nations seminar on racism was scheduled to take place in the midst of Operation Red Christmas. Was the timing a coincidence or was the purpose to disrupt the UN seminar? The $19.5 million in CIA funding for Red Christmas was announced with the bombing of the Nicaraguan airline at the México City airport, just as I was waiting to board the plane to attend the UN meeting. That day, December 13, 1981, seared my memory with the reality of terrorism and my country’s role in state-sponsored terrorism.

Once I arrived at the airport, I lingered as long as possible in its immense continuous main lobby. A microcosm of México City, it was lined with pharmacies, boutiques, banks, cafes, bookstores, art galleries, taco stands. I had to do some last minute shopping for items I didn’t have time to buy in the rush to turn in my grades, things hard to find anymore in Nicaragua because of the U.S. economic blockade–aspirin, Pepto-Bismo, Bic lighters, batteries, and toothpaste. This airport was new since my travels in and out of the old one in 1968 during protests against the Olympics then being held in México City, protests that culminated in the massacre of hundreds of Mexican students. That airport was then a crowded, miserable place, with CIA agents checking the movements of all U.S. citizens to prevent us from traveling to Cuba, which was what I had been trying to do in 1968. One thing hadn’t changed: thong-sandaled Indian women padded to and fro across the elegant marble floors, just as they had on the old concrete ones-mopping them.

I checked my watch: 11 a.m., nearly time to go through immigration and on to the gate to catch the Nicaraguan plane. The flight was scheduled for 2 p.m., and even though the flight was notorious for always being late, the ticket agent had told me to arrive at the gate two hours before the scheduled departure time and to stay there. I had arrived from San Francisco at dawn on the Mexicana tecolote, the redeye flight. I had chosen that chaotic flight, filled with Mexican farmworkers wearing jeans and cowboy boots and hats, hugging new boomboxes and portable TVs, in order to secure a seat on the Nicaraguan flight. There had been no way to make a reservation from the United States. The Mexicana ticket agent in San Francisco had told me, “The State Department has a travel advisory on the computer. Travel agencies and airlines are not allowed to make reservations for travel to Nicaragua. Just fly to México and get to the airport at the crack of dawn and take your chances.”

I took that advice, and at the Aeronica counter, I had netted one of the two seats left. I tried to resist checking my carry-on leather duffel bag, but the ticket agent had insisted: “Security,” he had said. The word echoed in my head; usually they said that size was the issue.

At immigration on my way to the international area, the Mexican official snatched my U.S. passport and removed the Mexican tourist card. He asked my destination in English, and when I said, “Nicaragua,” he looked up at me and smiled. Of course, I knew that Mexicans appreciated us gringos who defied our government. That made me feel good. I bought five cartons of Marlboros in the duty-free shop, as gifts, not for myself, as I had quit, again.

I was two hours early to the Aeronica gate, but I was not the first. It seemed that the other passengers were already there in the austere, modern waiting room–mostly dark, wiry teenagers dressed almost identically in crisp designer jeans, tee-shirts in bright colors, and spotless white athletic shoes. I asked one young woman on the fringe of the group where they were from. They were Nicaraguan students at México’s National University on Mexican scholarships, going home for Christmas vacation. But most Nicaraguans who left their country were not returning. They were pouring into San Francisco, complaining that they couldn’t make a living in Nicaragua, and there were rumors of war. Suddenly, precious U.S. visas and green cards had, for some, people, become easy to obtain.

I looked around and saw only one other possible gringo–bespectacled young, crop-haired blond man. I walked over to him, extended my hand, and asked him if he were going to the UN seminar in Managua. He introduced himself as Clifford Krauss, a Latin American correspondent for Cox News Service in Atlanta. He wasn’t aware of the seminar, he said, rather was on a quest to find a Salvadoran combatant, who he heard was in Managua for an interview. He told me he was nervous about the flight because of the CIA program to organize anti-Sandinista forces in Honduras. We discussed the fact that Congress had just granted the CIA nearly $20 million for covert operations, and that the CIA was paying Argentine military officers to train former Somoza national guardsmen. He also said that he didn’t trust taking Aeronica, but that the other Central American airlines had stopped flying to Managua under pressure from Washington. he worried that most of the Aeronica pilots and crews had defected, and that there would b no one to fly the plane. He had been waiting two days, because the Nicaraguan plane–Aeronica owned only one jetliner–had not arrived the day before.

Clifford and I drifted apart, and I sat down to read. The book was by the founder of the FSLN, Carlos Fonseca, who had been killed in an ambush by Somoza guardsmen in 1976. I was reading about the eastern half of the country:

The Mosquitia of Nicaragua, bypassed by Spanish colonization, becomes for a time in the 17th century a refuge for African slaves who daringly escape the captivity imposed on them in the European-owned plantations of the Antilles islands.

Following the consolidation of the colonization of indigenous lands, the Nicaraguan territory is virtually shared by the Spanish and British empires. The Pacific coast and center of Nicaragua remains under Spanish domination. The eastern region, no longer a refuge for fugitive slaves, falls under the domination of the British, who establish what they call “the Kingdom of Mosquitia,” which of course is provided with a kinglet.

Suddenly, everyone scurried toward the plate glass window. The Aeronica plane had arrived from San Salvador, where it had stopped to pick up passengers, and was even on time. The line, such as it was, formed at once. The students crowded in as close to the exit as possible, and inevitably, they had to be coaxed back to allow space for the arriving passengers. The Nicaraguan airline agent scolded the students, “Set a revolutionary example!” The young people inched back in unison, just enough to let the arrivals squeeze through.

Then, the agent announced that the departure would be delayed until the replacement crew arrived–they were stuck in the México City afternoon rush hour. I visualized the specter of the monstrous traffic jams at la comida, the early afternoon meal when everyone drives home for two hours, then returns to work, and I reconciled myself to a two-hour wait. I knew that if the plane did not leave by 4 p.m., forget it, because there was no night radar equipment at the Managua airport, and night falls all year around at 6 p.m. in Central America. I also thought about Clifford’s concern about the crews defecting.

An hour passed quickly. The Nica students were all curled up sleeping, propped against each other near the gate. The silence of the waiting room was punctuated with flight announcements. I walked toward the airline agent to ask if the crew had arrived. Suddenly, a glaring light blinded me, then blackness. My ears rang and echoed. I was flat on my back on the floor and shards of glass rained down.

An earthquake was my first thought. I lifted my head and took in the sight of people piled on top of each other, writhing, screaming. It was hard to tell that the plate glass window was gone, because every inch of glass had blown out. But the blaze sizzled, and tongues of fire lapped through the gaping mouth that had been the window. I realized that the plane could explode. A man shouted, “Bomba, Vámonos!”

Somehow, I got to my feet and moved, for I found myself in the corridor leaning against a cool marble wall. Then, a rush of people running knocked me down. I sat cross-legged, head in hands. Someone grabbed me under the arms and dragged me. I looked up into the blood-soaked face of one of the Nicaragua teenagers. She said, “You know that bomb was supposed to go off in the air and kill us all. You see, your government doesn’t even care if it kills its own citizens.”

As if I didn’t know.

I saw Clifford nearby, taking notes, his face smudged with soot. He walked toward me. “Well, there went Aeronica Internacional, embarrassing to be gringos, huh?” He offered me a Lucy Strike, and I took it, without a thought of having quit.

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960­1975 (City Lights, 2002). “Red Christmas” is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, South End Press, October 2005. She can be reached at:


















Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.