To many of us in the United States, the US contra war against the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s seems like very long ago. Since the CIA-manufactured defeat of the revolutionary government in Managua–a defeat that included mercenary war, media manipulations, CIA and Special Forces covert ops, drug-running and arms smuggling by people paid by the US government, and a sham election staged by Washington–the US has militarily invaded Iraq twice, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. A mere three months before that sham election, Washington invaded and overthrew the Panamanian government as if warning Nicaraguans what was in store for them should they vote against the US-sponsored candidates. In addition, Washington has instigated and assisted regime change in El Salvador, several countries in the former Soviet Bloc, and a few nations in Latin America, to name just a few regions of the world that come immediately to mind. Besides these “successes”, Washington has failed to overthrow the Bolivarian government in Venezuela or the governments of its eternal enemies–Cuba and northern Korea. One can be certain, however, that these attempts are ongoing. On top of all this, Washington has forced so-called free trade agreements on most countries around the world, especially those in what global capitalists like to call the developing word. These agreements are designed, of course, to maintain Washington and Wall Street’s neocolonial hold.
Given all of this, it is good to see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s latest effort Blood on the Border hit the bookstores. Her memoir of her experience as a leftist indigenous activist during the contra wars in Nicaragua is not only a well-told tale of those times, it is a primer on US intentions in the 21st century. Expansion and control, by whatever means necessary. The manipulation of local distrusts, both ethnic and religious; and the transformation of those mistrusts into armed conflict. All with the only real beneficiary being the economic and political masters in Washington.
Dunbar-Ortiz places the struggle of the Miskito people on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast firmly in the greater context of the struggles of all the western hemisphere’s indigenous nations to determine their own destinies and maintain their own cultures and ways of life. As she details in Blood on the Border, her acknowledgment of her own native heritage and its relationship to her involvement in leftist revolutionary movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s put her in a unique position to understand the situation faced by both sides in the debate in Nicaragua between the revolutionary Sandinista government and the indigenous nations within Nicaragua’s borders. In addition, her role lobbying various United Nations commissions dealing with indigenous issues gave her a mobility and a degree of independence that enabled her to hear from many sides of the debate. This information then allowed her to use her understanding of imperialism to work for a solution that would benefit the people in the regions where she was working, not those in Washington, DC or, sometimes, those in Managua.
Part history text and part personal narrative, Blood on the Border briefly discusses the history of US intervention in Nicaragua, always reminding the reader that Washington never cared about the people of Nicaragua, no matter what their ethnicity. Likewise, Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical summary of Washington’s relations with its own indigenous peoples makes a similar point. The role of Christian missionaries in creating the cultural climate for US imperial rule is also discussed, especially in relation to the Miskito peoples, who were “Christianized” by the Moravian Church. This relationship would, like so many other places where a Christian church has left its mark, work against the Sandinista (and in favor of Washington) in their attempts to work out some kind of agreement for Miskito autonomy.
Unfortunately, Dunbar-Ortiz was, along with the Sandinistas, up against the forces of the US military machine–a machine reinvigorated by the rise to power of the most hawkish wing of the US establishment. This wing, represented by Ronald Reagan on television and Ollie North in the field, was determined to defeat the popular revolutions of 1980s Central America. Their determination would put them on a path that eventually involved running cocaine into Los Angeles neighborhoods, missile parts through Israel to Iran in trade for US hostages being held by various militant cells in Lebanon, and cold cash back to the mercenary armies being trained and controlled by various members of the US State department, Defense Department, and intelligence agencies. Back home in the States, these mercenaries were recruited by various members of the indigenous rights movement who had been convinced by the CIA propaganda that the Sandinistas were a worse enemy of indigenous nations in the Americas than the US Cavalry. Of course, the money some of these so-called representatives received from CIA front groups (like Reverend Moon’s, Unification Church) helped in the convincing, as well.
Dunbar-Ortiz writes about this aspect of the US contra war, too. She details the attempts by various elements of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to discredit her by repeating propaganda contrived in the CIA counterintelligence offices or just by calling her a leftist. Other attempts, including one signed on to (rather ironically) by Ward Churchill that called into question her “Indianness,” and another by Nation writer Penny Lernoux that attacked the Sandinistas with as much vehemence as Ronald Reagan ever mustered, kept her in a state of regular re-examination. This would usually express itself in excessive alcohol consumption–a demon with which Dunbar-Ortiz had battled before.
As a person who attended multiple protests, a few sit-ins, and numerous meetings opposing the contra war in Nicaragua, I found Blood on the Border a revealing report on what was occurring on a completely different level of the movement against US imperialism. While I was attending meetings at La Pena in Berkeley or at a public library in Olympia, WA, Ortiz was riding canoes upriver in the Miskito nation. While she met with human rights activists in Geneva or Managua, I was sitting in at the Federal Building in Seattle. The struggle that hundreds of thousands of people were involved in around the world was waged on multiple levels and all of them complemented the other, even when we weren’t aware of that fact.
While reading Blood on the Border, I was alternately reminded of the whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory and his CIA man Pyle in The Quiet American. This isn’t because the author was reminiscent of either one of these characters, but because they represent what she was up against. Occasionally depressing, but never hopeless; instructional, but never tedious; Blood on the Border is further proof from the pen of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that memoir can be more than navel-gazing and self-flattery. In this instance it is history and political education.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org