by Courtney Tutt, Project Archivist
Nicaragua was ruled for forty-three years by the Somoza family as a dictatorship before the rulers were overthrown by the Nicaraguan people. On July 19, 1979, a new government was established that focused on land reform, redistributing 5.7 million acres taken from the dictator Somoza and his associates to small and medium-sized farmers to create private farms, cooperatives and government-owned farms. The new Nicaraguan government realized the importance of creating partnerships with North American farmers. Their impoverished country needed investment, technical expertise and skilled farmers. Partnerships formed between the two regions to provide literacy programs, agricultural development training and educational tours in both Nicaragua and the United States.
In 1983, the Federation of Southern Cooperative’s John Zippert, director of program operations at the Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, AL, was selected by the Highlander Center, in New Market, TN, to participate in a weeklong U.S. delegation to attend a North-South Conference on Adult Popular Education and Literacy in Nicaragua. It included educators from Canada, the United States and Latin America. That same year, at the Federation of Southern Cooperative’s 16th annual meeting, the guest speaker was Sylvia R. Torres of the Unión Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos (UNAG) who spoke about the Nicaraguan revolution (1977-1979) and the problems Nicaragua faced from the U.S. Reagan administration, who had opposed the Nicaraguan revolution and new government. The Reagan administration began to fund the counterrevolution, in what is commonly known as the Contra War (1981-1987).
During their 16th annual meeting, the Federation decided to pass a resolution in support of “the Nicaraguan people and their rights to choose their own government and leadership free from outside intervention; that the Federation, specifically condemns the American supported attacks on cooperatives and poor people in Nicaragua; that the Federation calls upon the American government to withdraw its support, its funds; its troops, its battleships and other assistance to the forces fighting the legitimate government of Nicaragua; that the Federation will seek to inform the public of its concern for Nicaragua especially the attacks on the cooperative movement and leaders there; and further that the Federation seek ways to make linkages and cooperative exchanges with UNAG and other similar organizations in Nicaragua, to develop long term mutual supportive relationships.”
In December 1985, Zippert interviewed Eduardo Baez, director of Adult Basic Education for the Nicaraguan government, for the Greene County Democrat. Eduardo Baez visited Alabama to study literacy programs in the United States and to conduct workshops on the work he and his office were doing in his country. The Federation took an interest in his work, which led to the creation of an adult literacy and small farmer exchange program that Zippert helped get funded, called the Association for Community Based Education (ACBE) Nicaragua Project. Nicaragua was successful in cutting its illiteracy rate from 51% to 12%.
In January 1987 George Paris, the Federation’s cooperative and land development specialist, was selected to attend the 1987 Nicaragua trip, which was part of the Let Nicaragua Live campaign, a humanitarian aid project associated with the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People. Paris was interested in the adult basic education program and the political struggles in Nicaragua. Paris met with Ray Hudson, mayor of Bluefields, Nicaragua, along the Atlantic coast, an area that had been a target of the Contra War. Bluefields was predominantly Afro-Caribbean with Creole as its central language. They worked as fishers, artisans and tradespeople. Paris also met with Marina Jarquín de Peralta, leader of the Committee of the Mothers of the Heroes and Martyrs in Matagalpa on the Pacific coast. She came from an area primarily composed of peasants who farmed for a living. Thousands of Nicaraguan peasants had been killed by Contras and many thousands more were displaced by the attacks. Marina lost two sons in the 1979 revolution to oust Anastasio Somoza and lost another two sons to the Contras.
As the Contra War intensified, it became all the more urgent to counter the disinformation campaign created by the U.S. government and get out the truth about Nicaragua. The Birmingham Committee for Peace and Justice in Central America hosted the Second Annual Alabama State Conference on Central America on February 14, 1987. The theme was “Get the Facts about Central America: Tired of Disinformation.” Speakers included CO-MADRES, the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated in El Salvador; George Paris, who had recently attended a 1987 Nicaragua trip; and Dr. Steven Shaffer, who attended the “In Search of Peace” conference in El Salvador in November 1986.
In October of 1988, the worst natural disaster in Nicaragua’s history struck when Hurricane Joan rolled over Bluefields on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. The city of Bluefields was virtually destroyed and 186,950 people were left homeless. The region lost 90% of their corn and bean crops and 10,000 head of cattle were killed. Nicaragua desperately sought aid around the U.S. trade embargo against Nicaragua, and within a week of the disaster, Let Nicaragua Live/Nicaragua Network created the Oats for Peace campaign which shipped 20 tons of oats to Nicaragua to help in providing sustenance to victims of the hurricane. Around this time, the U.S. was experiencing one of the worst droughts in over a century, so oats were in short supply. Nicaragua was in desperate need of assistance, so the Let Nicaragua Live campaign entered into an agreement with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to buy 233 tons of oats to be grown over the winter for harvest in May 1989. The agreement allowed both organizations to meet two important needs: providing business to poor family farmers, and sending oats for children’s health and nutrition in Nicaragua.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Collections and Reference Resources. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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