Project Nicaragua

 

   Nobody seemed to know her name, and in an odd way, it didn’t matter.  She needed help, and even though the two doctors spoke no Spanish, their actions transcended words and cultural barriers.  The little girl was hurt and these gringo doctors – National Guardsmen in camouflage fatigues – were there to help.

   She lived on an isolated swath of land high in the mountains of Nicaragua.  It was a haltingly beautiful spot where many inhabitants had never seen a doctor, or a dentist, in their entire life.  She was eight years old and had fallen off a horse.  Her back was deeply bruised and there was a concern that she may have broken her collar bone.

   As our two jeeps pulled up in front of her house, a palm thatched hut that looked like it had just been flown in from the South Pacific, she walked straight along a dirt path to silently greet us.  Our group was comprised of two doctors, a nurse, a translator, a driver, two armed soldiers of the Nicaraguan Army (both former Sandinistas) holding sub-machine guns, and me, a middle-aged journalist with a back ache.

   One of the doctors handed her a grape lollipop and another dropped to his knees to greet her at eye level.  She stood quietly as highly trained hands probed along her left wrist, arm and shoulder.

   She flinched in pain.  A gust of wind barreled past and filled our ears with the snapping sound of tropical leaves dancing in the breeze.  The doctors concluded she probably did have a broken collarbone, but it would heal by itself if she kept her arm in a sling.

   More lollipops were doled out to her siblings, and several military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) wee distributed.  The older sister was handed several doses of Advil and we exchanged smiles and headed back to our jeeps.  On the way to the vehicles the doctors veered towards the hut next door to distribute more MREs, and found a young woman with a blood soaked rag wrapped around her finger.

   She had accidentally sliced her finger with a knife earlier in the day and the bleeding hadn’t stopped.  While not life threatening, the doctors immedialey cleaned the wound and applied fresh bandages.  Within minutes we were on our way back to base camp where a Blackhawk helicopter waited to take us back to Managua.

   As we drove towards camp we had to navigate around several teenage boys lugging bags of red beans atop donkeys and horseback.  In the mountains the Nicaraguans are mestizos, a mix of Spanish and Native American descent, and their mode of transportation is primarily on horseback.  We drove past banana trees, and saw cattle grazing on velvet fields of green grass.  With the rush of warm tropical air in my face I thought about what I’d learned in the mountains of Nicaragua.

   First I had to lose the notion that the sole purpose of the National Guard was to quell riots, and rescue flood victims.  While in Nicaragua I witnessed Connecticut National Guardsmen drilling wells to supply clean water to rural mountain villagers.  I saw guardsmen supplying medical help to injured and sick Nicaraguans.  I saw Connecticut guardsmen working on a joint task force with guardsmen from Wisconsin, Ohio and California, and with armed soldiers from the Nicaraguan army.

    There was a lot more to the Connecticut National Guard than I realized and clearly there was a lot more to Nicaragua than I could possibly digest in a whirlwind five day trek from Waterbury.  In many ways the trip was one of the most bizarre and unexpected travel adventures of my life.

   It all began with a cell phone call from General Bill Cugno from Washington, D.C.

The General


   Bill Cugno has a big smile on his face these days.  Three years ago he was Waterbury Mayor Philip Giordano’s chief of staff, and headed up the $175 million upgrade of the sewage treatment plant in the South End of the city.
  

   Times have changed.
  

   Giordano is in the Big House awaiting trial on federal sex charges, and Cugno is now Adjutant General of the Connecticut National Guard and has 5500 soldiers (Army and Air Force) under his command.  Cugno’s new boss is Governor John Rowland, a substantial leadership upgrade from his days in the Brass City.

   I asked him what he thought about the Giordano scandal.

  “I was absolutely shocked about Phil’s arrest,” Cugno said. “If he is guilty of what he is charged with… it is appalling.  He used to tell me he was going to the gym every day.”

   When Cugno was hired by Giordano in December 1995 the two men didn’t know each other at all.  Cugno, who was retiring from his full-time position in the National Guard, was persuaded by influential Republican leaders (read John Rowland) to take the post to help Giordano stay on track.

   During Cugno’s three year tour of duty n Waterbury I became friendly with him.  We often talked about shark fishing exploits, or I’d get him to tell a story about one of his big hunts up north when he snagged a moose or caribou.

   He was a high energy, pedal to the metal kind of guy.  He still is. Cugno is a classic Type-A personality, a take charge man with so much energy bottled up it fires out of him like tiny missiles.  Picture a breakfast of six glazed donuts and four cups of espresso – he’s got that kind of energy.  Cugno says, “I’ve always been hyper,” but that might be as understated as saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground in northern Arizona.

   While working in Waterbury, Cugno talked passionately about the Connecticut National Guard – he was a colonel at the time – and asked if the Observer would ever be interested in covering one of the humanitarian missions the Guard went on every year.

   The answer was an unequivocal yes, but the timing never seemed to work out.  Until now.
 

    The General called me late Tuesday afternoon, February 26th, and invited me on a five day trip to Nicaragua.  He was going to visit his troops in a remote mountain region to check on morale, and see first hand what the base camp was like.

   “I always get my best information from the soldiers,” Cugno said.  “Wherever we deploy them I make it a point to go and visit them.”

   He explained that on the trip we’d spend a day and a half traveling to the post, two days in Nicaragua, and a day and a half traveling home.  The plane was going to leave early march 3rd, and I had 24 hours to answer.  With tremendous support from my ex-wife, we rearranged our schedules and took care of our number one priority – making sure our daughter’s life was in order – and then I was off to Central America. 

   The flight down and back was an adventure unto itself.  We flew in a small C-12 aircraft with six of the eight seats occupied by Connecticut National Guardsman.  On the trip was General Cugno, Major Kevin McMahon, Captain, Lou Martinez (a TV news reporter for Channel 3) and Captain Kathy King.  Piloting our plane were chief warrant officers Peter Faber and Jason Lill.  Connecticut’s Chief State’s Attorney, Jack Bailey, was scheduled to go to Nicaragua with the group, but cancelled at the last minute.

   So it was the seven of us taking off from the Guard’s Air Base at Bradley Airport, heading for the Nicaraguan jungle.  During the flight I sat next to the General and we spent hours talking about his latest hunt – he bagged an 11-foot alligator in a Mississippi swamp – and chewing the fat about Waterbury.

   While working as Giordano’s chief of staff, Cugno tried to approach the job like a military mission, but often collided with strong political forces.

   “Early on it was obvious that it wasn’t about an issue, but what team you were on,” Cugno said.  “It was foreign to me at first because in the military there are no teams.  The enemy is the guys you fight against.  But in Waterbury the fight was between political parties and factions.  It was like Governor Rowland says, a contact sport.”

   The experience was invaluable for learning first hand about the inner machinations of municipal government.  “The incredible dedication of so many people in city government was amazing,” Cugno said.  “The Board of Aldermen were passionate and committed about the issues, but the city has no long term plan.”

   Cugno believes the key to Waterbury’s future is developing a long term vision for the city.  “We need to know what we want to be when we grow up,” he said.

   Hard knuckled politics kept the decision making reactionary, instead of visionary, Cugno said.  “The charter has to change,” he said.  “Waterbury needs a mayor for four years and has to systemize and professionalize the way it conducts business.  It is important for any mayor to be inclusive and reach out to members of the other party.”
 

   Cugno believes a leadership summit should be held in Waterbury that includes Democrats and Republicans to discuss the long range vision for the city’s future.  “Waterbury needs to develop a strategy, just like a business would,” Cugno said.  “If the politicians can work together like a team, instead of enemies, great progress can happen.”

   The highlight of his time in Waterbury was managing the $175 million renovation of the waste water treatment plant.  “We successfully brought that project in under budget and on time,” Cugno said. “I pissed off a lot of people by challenging cost overruns, and denying them, but we dept the foxes out of the hen house.”

   We stopped briefly in Columbia, SC, for fuel, and flew into Key West in the mid-afternoon for an overnight pit-stop.

   While waking along the docks in Key West we saw thousand of overweight tourist with pink sunburned necks, swollen red feet, arms full of packages making their way onboard luxurious cruise ships tied up at the wharf.

   For the past few days I had been reading up on Nicaragua and had learned that Nicaraguans work for 10 cents an hour, and the average yearly income is $434 per person.  Standing there on the dock in Key West I felt strange and uncomfortable looking at all the decadence and frivolity.

   I imagined taking one of the cruise ships, turning it upside down and shaking the money out onto the pier.  There’d be enough cash and jewelry to feed Nicaragua for a year.
In the morning we continued our journey and flew to Grand Cayman Island, where we had a 90 minute layover for fuel and lunch.  The island was surrounded by turquoise waters, a real scuba diving paradise.

   One of the guardsmen, Major Kevin McMahon, is an avid scuba diver and was frustrated we didn’t have enough time to swim or snorkel.  Instead we drove to town and were dropped in a swank business district complete with Cartier Watches, Waterford Crystal and diamonds.

   Not being independently wealthy, I quickly left the area and went for a couple mile hike along the shoreline.  I ducked into a grocery store and bought some fresh papaya juice, a chunk of roasted chicken, slices of mango and pineapple, and made a street feast as I walked along.

   Just a short distance from the coastline – which is a thin veneer of wealth – the affluence turned third world ugly.  Garbage.  Broken down cars.  Shattered windows.  Tilting houses set on crooked cinder blocks.  Every face I looked into was edgy and hard.  One man, not used to seeing tourists stroll through his neighborhood, asked if I was lost.

   No, I said, I’m just trying to see the island.  I wondered what these people – all of African descent – thought of the tourists spending thousands of dollars on vacations and cruises when they struggled to meet basic living necessities.

   After another stunning departure we flew the C-12 across the Caribbean, over a small patch of Honduras, and into Nicaragua.  The east coast looked green and uninhabited.  As we descended down through the clouds to 12,000 feet we came upon Lake Managua, with several active volcanoes on its north shore.  The water was completely brown, an odd condition since it was the dry season and any silt should have settled to the bottom.

   As we landed the plane at a military airport we saw Old Soviet helicopters on the tarmac, and abandoned bunkers dotted the airport perimeter.  We stepped out into a blinding sun and were greeted by Nicaraguan soldiers in blue camouflage uniforms.  It was surreal.  We were in Nicaragua, a country freshly torn by revolution and civil war.

Drive Through Hell

   On the descent into Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, nobody could believe we were landing in a city with more than a million inhabitants.  There appeared to be no downtown, no high rise buildings, no central business district.  All I could see was thousands of tin shanty homes held together by rubber bands, wire and cardboard.
 

   Rocked by earthquakes and revolution, Nicaragua is a land of stark contrast.  It is the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere where the average worker earns 10 cents an hour.  Malnourished children, their stomachs swollen by worms, battle malaria, cholera and hepatitis.  We saw some of those children on the way to visit with the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Oliver Garza.
 

  Captain Juan Candelario, a Puerto Rican National Guardsman, drove General Cugno and myself across town so the General could pay a courtesy call on the ambassador.  The poverty and despair along the route were hard to look at.  Small children clung to the mirrors at several traffic lights.  A man in a wheelchair with no arms pounded his stubs against our car in front of the Nicaraguan White House.  Emaciated horses pulled over-burdened carts along the roadways.  Impossibly thin dogs scrounged through garbage alongside people with stomachs bloated by malnutrition and worms.

   The drive was a gauntlet through hell.  Tin houses and garbage were everywhere.  The capital city rests on the shores of Lake Managua, which we noticed was completely discolored as we flew in.  Captain Candelario told us the lake was completely useless.  It was contaminated with garbage, raw sewerage, and volcanic ash.  We later found out a Japanese company has been hired to recondition the entire lake.  In time posh tourist resorts should line the shores.

   But now it’s just an oversized toilet for Managua’s teeming population.
At one light a beautiful little girl with scraggly hair and huge brown eyes pressed her face against the window and begged for money.  General Cugno said he wanted to take her home with him, that he knew he could make a huge difference in her life.  But if he wanted to help all the beautiful children in the country he’d have to evacuate more than a million Nicaraguans.

   Everywhere you looked was pain.  So much pain it felt like we were getting handfuls of glass hurled in our eyes.  And all we were doing was looking.

   Teenaged boys carried sacks of tiny water bags on their heads and hawked them to thirsty drivers.  After buying an “agua” in a baggie, the drivers would tear a hole in the plastic with their teeth and suck the water out.  Then they’d throw the plastic onto the road where thousands of plastic baggies tumbled along the street.

   We passed a huge statue of a farmer holding a machete in one hand and thrusting a Russian AK-47 in the air with the other. It was a memorial to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 when the people ousted a corrupt dictator.

   Coca Cola signs were everywhere.  Giant red placards from Coke sat atop every bus stop, providing Nicaraguans shelter from the sun.

   Then we arrived at the embassy.  A gate opened and nine Nicaraguan security men inspected under the car’s hood, beneath the car and behind the tires.  They spent several minutes examining the outside of the vehicle and then waived us through without ever looking inside the car, or asking who we were.

    Inside the embassy I was told I would be unable to take my camera equipment back to see the ambassador, which was too bad, because Oliver Garza was a real hoot.

   After weaving our way through a maze of doors we entered into Garza’s office and exchanged formalities.  Cugno was diplomatic and clearly know hot to play the game.  Garza, rotund, wearing a monogrammed shirt and a less than convincing toupee on his head, seemed somewhat distracted, like he would rather be napping than hosting Connecticut’s Adjutant General.

   He came to life when the discussion turned to next year’s mission in Central America.  The National Guard are deploying into Belize next year – skipping Nicaragua – and Garza was angling for more action coming his way.  He stressed how important the mission was to helping him make inroads with the Nicaraguan Army.

   Cugno explained that post-911 America has different priorities now that it is engaged in a war on terrorism.  The general told Garza that the resources were very thin now.  Garza replied that he didn’t care about the problems elsewhere, he just needed to insure that he got what he needed.

   Garza was in Nicaragua representing the United States of America and the brief glimpse I got of him was embarrassing.  His interests were parochial and self centered.  But the real kicker was when the General asked him where we should eat that night.  Cugno wanted to sample Nicaraguan food and thought the US Ambassador to Nicaragua would have a keen insight to share.

   His suggestion – there was a great Chinese restaurant next to our hotel.

   Within the next 24 hours I realized the most effective US Ambassador in Nicaragua was from the National Guard.  They were out with the people trying to help, and in many cases, making a real difference.

Nicaragua History

   Despite the poverty and despair the countryside is stunningly beautiful.  Ripe fruit dangle from mango trees.  Active volcanoes hiss and steam.  Deep crater lakes and hot springs dot the land.

   According to accounts written by a Catholic priest there were more than one million Nicaraguans living in the country when Spanish explorer Gil Gonzales de Avila arrived in 1522.  It was at this time, the priest wrote, “that de Avila went off to the perfectly happy province of Nicaragua and subjected the people to so much evil, butchery, cruelty, bondage and injustice that no human tongue would be able to describe it.”

   Within 40 years he indigenous population was decimated from 1,000,000 to an estimated 30,000.  Many natives were killed in battle or dragged away into slavery, but it was European diseases – influenza and measles – that nearly wiped out the entire Indian population.

    Nicaragua gained independence from Spain by first joining the Mexican Empire in 1822, and then becoming a sovereign nation in 1838.  As the world was developing Nicaragua attracted strong interest from many countries attempting to build a canal through central America liking the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean.  Nicaragua, with a chain of rivers and lakes, was a natural choice for the canal.  Skirmishes for power and control ensued.
 

   Bizarrely, in 1855, an American adventurer, William Walker, stormed through the country with a band of mercenaries and declared himself president of Nicaragua.  Walker’s self declared presidency was officially recognized by American President James Buchanon.  Walker declared English to be the official language of Nicaragua, reinstituted slavery, and openly talked about taking over all of Central America by force.

   The other five Central American countries immediately responded to Walker’s threat by sending in troops and driving him out of Nicaragua.  In 1861 Walker returned to Central America to pursue his personal dream of conquest, but was captured and executed by the Honduran government.

   Walker’s wild dream was just the beginning of the United States intense meddling in Nicaraguan affairs.  Wanting to insure Nicaraguan leaders were friendly towards American, and protecting American business interests, the US stationed troops on Nicaraguan soil from 1912 to 1925 and from 1926 to 1933.

   It was not the first, or last time Nicaraguans chanted “Yankees Go Home.”

   During this time Augusto Sandino led a long guerrilla struggle against government injustices, and United State’s occupation of Nicaragua.  Sandino won widespread support from the peasants in the countryside who had long suffered at the hands of oppressive landowners and corrupt politicians.  Unable to defeat Sandino, and hiving recovered massive loan repayments for American investors, the United States withdrew its troops in 1934.

   The Nicaraguan president was unable to ward off Sandino without the US marines and quickly made peace with the guerillas.  Fearing his popular support, The National Guard, led by Anastasio Somoza, subsequently murdered Sandino during a banquet at the Presidential Palace in Managua.

   Within two years Somoza seized power for himself and over the next 50 years he and his two sons terrorized and controlled the Nicaraguan people.  With a brutal and corrupt National Guard as his power base, Somoza soon became the country’s largest landowner and coffee producer, and by 1979 the Somoza Family fortune was estimated to be worth between $150 and 300 million.

   Somoza was educated in the United States and was staunchly anticommunists, which is why two generations of American leaders forged close ties with Nicaragua, and looked the other way at his human rights violations and “fixed” presidential elections.
In 1956 a young Nicaraguan poet assassinated Somoza and declared that “any Nicaraguan who loved his country should have done this a long time ago.”

    During the next 16 years Somoza’s two sons ruled Nicaragua.  After a devastating earthquake in 1972 millions of dollars in international relief poured into Nicaragua and ended up mostly in Somoza’s bank account.

   Somoza’s total disregard for the people after the devastating earthquake spawned another revolution, this time led by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN).  Taking the name of the people’s first revolutionary hero, Augusto Sandino, a new generation of freedom fighters were known throughout the world as Sandinistas.

    In a classic showdown of oppressed people versus corrupt power, the Sandinistas won a fierce and brutal war and forced Somoza to flee the country in 1979.  As the Sandinistas sought to establish social justice in Nicaragua the revolution gained widespread support throughout the world.

   In its first year in power the Sandinista government received $75 million in aid from the United States, but storm clouds were on the horizon.  Cuba also sent help in the form of 2000 teachers and military advisors.  Nicaragua opened its heart to the world, including Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and fears that communism would hijack the revolution motivated the US to cut all economic aid.

  Fidel Castro made appearances in Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas were accused of exporting arms and revolution to rebels in El Salvador.  In the 1980s Central America, especially Nicaragua and El Salvador, became the front line of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

   Within two years the luster of the revolution and the promise of change began to war thin with many Nicaraguans.  High level Sandinistas broke away from the government, and with covert support from the CIA, established rebel camps in southern Nicaragua.  They became known as the Contras.
 

   United States President Ronald Reagan sent American troops into Honduras to establish security along the Nicaraguan border.  As tensions escalated the Sandinistas embraced the Soviet Union and accepted tanks, airplanes and helicopters.

   Neither the Soviets or the Americans had the will to square off against each other in what would have been a full scale nuclear war, so the world drama between Communism and Democracy played out in Nicaragua as the Sandinistas versus the Contras.

   In a way the Nicaraguan revolution became a casualty of the larger ideological war being waged between American and Soviet interests.  It began as an impoverished people rising up to topple a corrupt and vicious dictator, was sidetracked by communist assistance, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nicaragua has moved steadily towards democracy.
There have been free elections since 1990 and the security issue with Nicaragua is slowly dissipating.  Although there is still pocket violence in the northeast corner of country, a Nicaraguan solder told us that “Democracy is irreversible.  No more uprisings or dictators.  There is now a trust between politics, people and the military.”

   He said the people are not economically better off yet, but they are much happier with peace and security across the land.

    During a meeting with a Nicaraguan Army officer he explained that there had been a reconciliation between the Contras and the Sandinistas.  “We have small problems still between us,” Major Ruiz said, “But they are political problems, nothing with guns.”
Ruiz said both sides have to let go of the past and are concentrating on Nicaragua’s future. “Children of Contras and Sandinistas marry now,” he said. “There is no difference.”
Contras can even serve in the army after undergoing rigorous background checks.  Ruiz said there is still “a very small faction that keeps to its fanatical ideas, but they must conform to the majority.”

Task Force Chontales


   After our bizarre encounter with the US Ambassador we headed to the Intercontinental Hotel, a swank and luxurious resort in the middle of abject poverty.  How do the Nicaraguans provide security?  Armed policemen patrol the street corners around the hotel. 
In the morning we drove back out to the military airport where we climbed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter to fly out ot base camp in the mountains.  By car, one soldier told me, the drive would have taken from 8 to 11 hours.  We made it in fifty minutes.

    As we ran beneath the blades of the Blackhawk helicopter I felt like I was stepping into Vietnam.  All around us was lush tropical vegetation, men in army uniforms and guys with guns.  The General was escorted into a briefing and he bulled his way through it quickly in order to have more time with his soldiers in the field.

   But I did learn more about the mission.  It was a joint readiness program between all branches of military.  The mission was to provide humanitarian aid while improving relations between the Nicaraguan and United States governments.  It was about breaking down barriers.

    During a six month operation guardsmen from around the country rotated in and out in three week shifts.  In the end they will have build four schools, six medical clinics, drilled three wells and treated nearly 20,000 Nicaraguan patients.

   The soldiers live in a thirty acre base camp complete with baseball sized beetles, scorpions, taranguals, and although no one has seen one yet, there are deadly pit vipers and Fer-de-Lance snakes slithering in the bush.  The weather is hot and humid and the tropical sun feels like tiny needles attacking any unprotected skin.  But the troops appear happy and content.  There is a deeper meaning to these missions than simple training exercises.

   The 247th Engineer Detachment from the Connecticut National Guard was deployed on their fifth humanitarian mission in Central America.  Staff Sergeant Jon Lane is a geology professor at UConn.  “After we drill the wells the infant mortality rate in this region will be cut in half,” Lane said.  “What’s better than that.”
 

   The soldiers receive little media attention back in Connecticut, but are front page news in the Nicaraguan newspapers.”  The guard is one of the best kept secrets in Connecticut,” Major Kevin McMahon said. Nobody knows about all the things we do, but this is your tax dollars at work.”