Wednesday, January 19, 2005

This forgiveness is no small thing

Dona Miriam is a determined, powerful woman. I met her in her village of El Regadio, a small town in Nicaragua. I traveled there this summer with an organization called Witness for Peace. Witness for Peace tries to influence U.S. foreign policy by educating U.S. citizens on our impact in Latin America.

Dona Miriam has lived her whole life in El Regadio. She makes her living by farming there and working in a farmer's cooperative.

In the 1980's, El Regadio was often visited by war. The U.S.-funded Contra paramilitaries were trying to overthrow the Sandinista government and, because El Regadio was such a firmly Sandinistan village, the Contras made regular trips there.

Although war is never pleasant, it is evident that the Contras were not the “Freedom Fighters” that President Reagan declared them to be during his time in office. The people in El Regadio clearly told us this much.

Contras targeted civilian populations, kidnapping, killing and torturing men, women and children. The Contras were terrorists.

Dona Miriam knows. The Contras killed two of her sons.

And yet, when I met Miriam, she was sitting next to Jose. Jose and Miriam have worked together to organize the farmers around El Regadio.

Jose used to be a Contra soldier.

I was in the presence of forgiveness.

How did this come to be? How could Miriam put aside her feelings of loss caused by the Contras? How could she sit there – smiling! – next to this former terrorist?

I listened in awe as Don Jose told the group I was with how he had become involved with the Contras. He told us that he was “just a farmer.” That was all he ever wanted to be.

But in the 1980's, Jose told us that everyone was choosing sides – you had to be a Contra or a Sandinista. The CIA had been busy demonizing the Sandinistas, saying they were spreading communism across Nicaragua. The stories said that, if communism spread, so would poverty and loss of land.

And so, Jose joined the Contras.

The Contras agreed to lay down their weapons in 1990 when Sandinistan president Daniel Ortega lost the election. That was the end of the military fighting.

However, in the years that followed, Don Jose told us that poverty and loss of land was rampant. All he wanted was the right to farm his land in peace but being a Contra did not bring security to his farming, nor did ousting Ortega.

In the years that ensued, Jose realized that the war only led to destruction and hate and that his plight was with his fellow farmers. If he were to survive as a farmer, his allegiance would have to be with the farmers in El Regadio.

With Miriam.

And Miriam, for her part, smiled at her coworker and graciously acknowledged that it had been a hard time for everyone.

And that was it. Don Jose had been forgiven.

The workers in El Regadio told us: Because Nicaragua is in such a spiral of poverty, there simply is no other choice for the poor of the country but to work together. At the time, I thought that this was understandable, but wondered if Jose knew what grace had been shown to him.

In another meeting our group heard from Dona Gladys, a union organizer who has tried to help factory workers pull together.

She spent some time rapturously talking about the “good old days” of the 1980's. Even though there was the war going on, the Sandinista government held out much promise for the people of Nicaragua. There was work for everyone, she told us, and healthcare and food. The literacy rate skyrocketed. “It was like a dream,” she told us.

Then her eyes turned dark. She stared at us and asked in a heartbroken voice, “I would really like to know who gave this man, Reagan, the power to destroy our lives?”

And as I sat, listening to Gladys, Miriam, Jose and the others tell us about how they're struggling to survive, it occurred to me that Jose wasn't the only one forgiven.

It was, after all, my country's support that kept the Contras going for ten long years – devastating Nicaragua's economy.

It is my country's policies that have led to the reduction of agricultural aid, education and health care today.

That night, after our day's conversations, the people of El Regadio threw us a party. They played music for us, embraced us and danced with us. And I knew that I, too, had been forgiven. The people we spoke with said that they loved all Americans and that they believed the citizens of the U.S. would work to change policy, if only they knew.

I hope they're right. This forgiveness is no small thing.

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