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What's New in Nicaragua?

Q&A With Grant Gallup, a Chicago Priest Now Living and Working With the Poor in Managua



Almost immediately after he arrived in Managua in late 1989, the Reverend Grant Gallup, a tall man of 59 with a strong, chiseled face and gray curly hair, joined the regular Thursday picket line outside the U.S. embassy protesting American policy in Nicaragua. Gallup had been sent to Managua by his Episcopal bishop in Chicago, Frank Griswold. The Chicago diocese and the Nicaraguan diocese had just established a companion relationship, and Gallup was to act as a liaison. He was to teach at the seminary, assist the Nicaraguan bishop in pastoral work, and set up a series of visits of Chicagoans to Nicaragua, like those he had been making since 1985.

It was two months before Gallup was recognized by the Nicaraguan bishop, Sturdie Wyman Downs, and their meeting came only because Gallup sent a letter requesting one. The first thing Downs said was, "I want you to stop picketing the embassy." Gallup refused, saying, "As an American citizen, it is my right and my duty. In my view, any religion that does not issue in politics is superstition." Within a few months Gallup was relieved of all his responsibilities in the Nicaraguan diocese and made persona non grata.

Downs tried to have him recalled. He raised all kinds of questions about Gallup with Griswold, including questions that pointed to his homosexuality. Gallup says that Nicaraguans aren't as homophobic as Americans think, but a gay man doesn't have an easy time in their country. "Sturdie Downs thought he could use my homosexuality as a political tool against me," he says. Griswold didn't bite. After all, a significant percentage of the Episcopal clergy in urban areas is gay.

When he was later asked for his recommendation for the Nicaraguan diocese, Gallup reported rumors he'd heard that some money the U.S. church had sent there had been used improperly. "I said that what the Nicaraguan church needed was openness in church financial affairs and a greater participation of the laity. The bishop was furious."

Gallup responded to Bishop Downs's antagonism by establishing Casa Ave Maria, which was officially recognized by the government as an alternative ministry. Today Casa Ave Maria is in a different house in a "humbler neighborhood" (the owners of the first house returned to Managua after the February 1990 elections). It is a favorite source of food, money, and medicine and an oasis of priestly kindness for Gallup's poor neighbors, many of whom live on $50 a month. Gallup also provides hospitality to visitors from outside the country and other parts of Nicaragua, as well as guidance and financial help to 25 artisan families in Masaya, a country town that is a traditional artisan center. And he helps a women's health center in the town of Mulukulu and conducts prayer services three times a day.

Bishop Griswold paid Gallup's salary for the year they had contracted for. Then Gallup was on his own. He threw in his lot with the Nicaraguans. He came back to Chicago, withdrew his savings, and raised some money among a wide network of friends built during his 30 years at Saint Andrew's on Chicago's west side and his years of working in the human-rights movement around the country. He has since operated Casa Ave Maria with the moral support of Bishop Griswold and his savings and donations from friends. Church politics make it impossible for the Chicago diocese to support him financially, though Gallup looks forward to the day when Downs leaves and that changes.

Gallup was born and raised in a small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan. His father was an iron miner who was severely injured on the job and couldn't return to the mines, and who then taught himself enough to eventually become the county's director of welfare. So, Gallup says, "I call myself a working-class intellectual."

Following graduation from high school in 1950, Gallup went to a small Presbyterian college in central Michigan, Alma College, where he was asked to resign for talking about his homosexuality. "It was the height of the McCarthy era. It wasn't for any overt sexual activity, but just for telling people that I thought I was gay. I got a book called Homosexuality in America and circulated it among some friends who were gay. It fell into the hands of the dean, who asked me to resign from the college. Well, I was editor of the college newspaper and of the yearbook, and I had the highest grades, and I was a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. So I simply said no. 'If you want to bring formal charges against me, you can.' So I graduated magna cum laude. But I had the good sense for a long time to live my sexual life quite privately."

After he graduated, Gallup was drafted. On the form he had to fill out for the physical examination, he checked "homosexual tendencies" as an "illness" he had. He was seen by an Army psychiatrist who looked at the form and said, "Oh, you're just a borderline case. Erase that." So he was drafted and served two years in Puerto Rico, where, he says, "I first became acquainted with Hispanic culture and came to love it."

After his Army stint he went into the Episcopal Seabury-Western Seminary in Evanston, having decided that "it would be safer than the Presbyterian ministry, because there are a lot of single clergy in the Episcopal church." And, he says, "I was impressed with the beauty of the Episcopal worship and the less puritanical attitudes than in the other American religions that are so infected by Calvinism." He estimates that when he was in the seminary about 30 percent of the students were gay.

In recent years, he says, his homosexuality "doesn't seem to be so central to me as when it had to be so secret." He has not been secretive for many years. In 1975 he helped found Integrity, an organization of gay and lesbian Episcopalians, and in 1979 he chaired an Episcopalian task force on gay and lesbian sexuality. But his organizational talents weren't limited to gay and lesbian concerns. In the 60s he helped found ESCRU, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, which played a very active role in the civil rights movement. And he has chaired numerous church committees and community organizations on the west side.

I talked to Gallup when he was in Chicago for a couple of weeks early this year to raise money for rent, medicines and supplies, and various projects. Synapses, an ecumenical organization of clergy and laymen concerned with social problems, gave him a check for $10,000 to provide a rotating lending fund for the Masaya family artisans; Gallup says the artisans couldn't afford to borrow money after the government ended the interest-free loans the Sandinistas had made and started charging 15 percent interest and requiring collateral. (Contributions to Casa Ave Maria can be sent to Reverend Ted Copland, Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church, 2120 Lincoln, Evanston, Illinois 60201; 708-869-4850.)

Florence Hamlish Levinsohn: Tell me about Casa Ave Maria.

Grant Gallup: Our first project was helping the Masaya artisan families and getting scholarships for them to attend a training center in Masaya being run by our co-coordinator, Miriam Lazos, and her husband. Miriam is handling all our social-welfare work. She was formerly head of internal affairs for the social-welfare department under the Sandinistas, and she knows the ropes of social welfare in the country. The training center is designed to teach the artisans how to run their little businesses. They are illiterate and are always being fleeced by the Managuan entrepreneurs who come in and buy their beautiful rocking chairs, for instance, for $25 and take them back to Managua and sell them for $75. The artisans need some basic arithmetic and computing skills so that they can figure out how much things cost them and how much to sell their products for.

Another thing we're going to do is establish pharmacies in poor neighborhoods--the barrios--because the Chamorro government has effectively ended the distribution of free medicine that the Sandinistas had in place. Now people have to get prescriptions and pay for their medicines. Even people in hospitals must get their own medicines. I know a North American woman who was in hospital, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, and she had to have friends shop for her drugs for her. The hospitals have no medicines to dispense. So we're going to establish these pharmacies and dispense medicines according to people's ability to pay. Some, of course, have no money to pay for more than the merest subsistence, so we will give them their medicines free. Others will buy at cost or perhaps for some a little more. I got interested in this project through a woman friend, Dorothy Granada, who runs a women's health center in Mulukulu, a little town north of Managua that grew up as a result of the war. They have no running water and no electricity, and are miles and miles away from any health care. Dorothy and her husband built a thatch-and-bamboo hut where her husband teaches a carpentry class for women and Dorothy runs a health center. It was her need for basic medicines--Band-Aids and aspirin--that provoked us into this project.

But it's not only in the countryside that medicines are not available. Every day people come to my door for the simplest kind of medicine--for body lice, headache, arthritis, impetigo, infections. It really began when I first arrived. I drove down with a doctor friend, and when people learned there was a doctor in the house, they streamed in. They still come, though there's no doctor there now. I try to help in whatever little way I can. Sometimes I buy their medicine, and sometimes I have it in the house. I remember how furious Sturdie Downs got when he discovered I was doing this. "Practicing medicine without a license," he yelled.

I have visitors from all over the world, as far as Australia, and of course people coming to Managua from other parts of Nicaragua who need a place to stay for a night or for a week or more. I serve on the average of 12 meals a day both to my household guests and to poor people who come for a meal. And we keep the daily round of prayer, at 6:30 in the morning, at 4:30, and then at 9 in the evening--the old monastic offices--for whoever chooses to join us.

FHL: Let's talk about the situation in Nicaragua today. We get reports that Violeta Chamorro isn't able to govern; that she has given in too many times to the Sandinistas, angering the right wing; that she has lost the faith of the people; that she could be overthrown.

GG: Those reports are an effort to soften up the American people for a takeover of the Chamorro government because she is not right wing enough for the U.S. In fact, she's governing as well as can be expected considering that she's running a coalition government. The Sandinistas, after all, got 43 percent of the vote and UNO's 14 parties got the rest. But the largest vote any single UNO party got was only 17 percent. So the Sandinistas are still the largest political group--she can't govern the country without their input. She learned that after the July strike, when the Sandinista unions took to the street, tore up the paving stones, literally paralyzed the city. The Chamorro government was forced to sign agreements to commit itself to honoring the institutions that had been set up by the Sandinistas and to protect the incomes of the workers and the pensions for the aged. But Chamorro didn't have to do that, and the U.S. ambassador was very angry that she did. He offered to bring in the Marines to put the strike down, and she refused. The American people are being told that she can't govern because the U.S. doesn't like the way she is governing. They want to dump her. This is the analysis of most of the North Americans who live there. Most of them, and the Sandinistas I know, realize that Violeta is between a rock and a hard place. The Sandinistas are her chief support. They want to see her succeed. Because only if she stays in power can Nicaragua continue to be a democratic country, which, after all, the Sandinistas created--they made a democratic election possible. If Violeta is overthrown, she'll be replaced by a right-wing government backed by the U.S. The vice president, Virgilio Godoy, whom the U.S. forced Chamorro to accept on the ticket, has already asked Chamorro to resign. We say the U.S. is waiting for Godoy. He is an extreme right-winger who is alleged to have misused German aid funds and to have been on the take from the CIA. But his only support is from the returned contras and the U.S.--anyone else in Nicaragua laughs at the idea of Godoy taking over. There would be civil war first. But Violeta needs to placate the U.S. and the right wing to stay in power, so she is not in a good position. The U.S. is very upset with her. It was not expected that she would turn down the offer of U.S. troops in July or that she would sign those agreements. And the U.S. media, except for the alternative press, has served the government well in trying to convey her incompetence.

But in Nicaragua there is another reality. The entire center supports Chamorro. Only the extreme right, the Godoyistas, as they're called, and the extreme left oppose her. When Violeta left the country to speak in Washington last spring, Godoy declared himself acting president. But when he went to the president's office to take over, the troops kept him out. The legislature has since clarified that he will only become president after her disability of 30 days or more.

But her physical condition is worrisome. Rumors are that she has osteoporosis. She is rarely seen without a cane or a walker, and she goes to Houston once a month for medical care.

Violeta has the reputation for being a dumbbell, can't read the speeches written for her, stumbles all over them, and in an interview last year she couldn't remember the name of the college she attended in the U.S. That's how seriously she took her college education. But she was smart enough to appoint her son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo, as minister of the presidency, and he really governs. He is a technocrat, a man who knows what's going on outside in the great world, educated in the U.S., knows about international economics and politics. He is a kind of University of Chicago neoliberal. Claims to be apolitical, but he is getting along with the Sandinista leadership. I think he came to it reluctantly. I think he thought he could do what they thought they were elected to do--take over Nicaragua, winner take all--but things didn't work that way. They had to deal with those who didn't vote for them. He, along with the leadership of the Sandinistas, is the author of concertacion.

FHL: What is concertacion?

GG: It is a process being carried out by a committee made up of the labor unions, the Sandinistas, and the government that is deciding, for instance, how property will be handled. Nothing will be returned to private hands without agreement of all three groups. That's really how the country is being governed. And that's how the Sandinistas want it to be governed. They want the democratic institutions to work so that they can be elected to office five years from now.

Chamorro is herself a centrist, nowhere near the right-winger that Godoy is. She has, for instance, reined in the mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Aleman, who is the former head of the youth group for Anastasio Somoza and is a very vengeful man who, among other things, wanted to tear down the wall that had been erected around Daniel Ortega's house. And he ordered the removal of all the murals painted by Sandinista and other artists all over the city. His crews began whitewashing them, but Violeta stopped him after the artists, both left and right, protested. She stopped him from tearing down Ortega's wall, saying, "The former president is entitled to his privacy." Aleman also wanted to tear down the squatter settlements erected around the American embassy and around the markets. Violeta also stopped that.

She has been a moderating influence, partly because she's a very practical person. She isn't stupid, nor is she a person of ill will. Actually, she symbolizes Nicaragua for a lot of people because she's the matriarch of a very divided family. Many families have been divided in the last few years and people identify with her. Her son edits Barricada, the Sandinista daily paper; her daughter, Christine, edited La prensa, the right-wing daily--until a few weeks ago when she was fired because, they said, she was too slavishly supporting her mother's government. Violeta's brother-in-law, Xavier, edits El nuevo diario, another daily that is farther left than Barricada. When Violeta's husband, Pedro Joaquin, died and she took over La prensa, the U.S. moved in and convinced her to oppose the Sandinistas. Xavier and 80 percent of the staff resigned and went down the street to start El nuevo diario. They consider themselves the legitimate heirs of her husband. While Barricada is conciliatory to Violeta, El nuevo diario is openly critical of both the government and the Sandinistas, and gives lots of space to liberation theology. Xavier refuses to call Violeta by her last name. Instead, he calls her Violeta Barrios viuda de Chamorro, which means widow of Chamorro and is the formal way of saying it. But no one but him ever uses it.

FHL: Has there been a great flowering of media since the transition?

GG: Well, there were lots of newspapers and magazines and radio stations under the Sandinistas. The government is now trying to dispossess one of the two Sandinista-owned radio stations, Radio Ya! The right wing blew up the transmitter, but they were able to get back in business very quickly. One of the accords signed by the government permitted the Sandinistas to have an hour of news analysis on the television station they had owned but which the government took over. That has continued. And there are now efforts to establish private television. Pat Robertson was down there talking about setting up one of his evangelical stations.

In addition to the three daily papers, there are several weeklies, including a comic weekly that calls itself a weekly review of Marxism, sex, and violence. It's very funny. The Christmas issue gave away a condom with each copy.

Condoms are, by the way, something that Nicaragua needs much more than it needs more publications because of the returning contras who are bringing AIDS into the country from Honduras, which has a very high incidence of AIDS because of drug addiction and promiscuous sex among the occupying American troops. I have given the women's health center in Mulukulu condoms so that the women can protect themselves. A gay and lesbian group in California sent me 1,000 condoms by United Parcel addressed to Casa Ave Maria, which must have confused the customs people to no end.

FHL: Is there a wide distribution of the various papers?

GG: Nicaraguans are a very literate people. They read a lot--books are highly valued. At the time of the revolution there was 50 percent literacy, and now it's 85 percent.

FHL: I assume the Sandinistas have a publishing house. Are there now any independent ones?

GG: There were independent publishers under the Sandinistas, but books are hard to come by now, much harder than they used to be. Books used to be very cheap. Most of them came from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Now most of the books come from North America, and they are too expensive for most people to buy. I'm trying to find some books on English as a second language to take back. People are very anxious to learn English.

FHL: Has there been some flowering of the arts since the transition?

GG: Well, everyone is a poet. The Sandinistas encouraged that. Daniel Ortega said at one time, "Everyone is a poet until proven otherwise." He was himself a poet. David, my driver, writes poetry, and my Spanish tutor brought me a little handmade book of his poems. There is an honoring of poetry that there isn't here in the U.S. Little boys who write poems in the U.S. are called sissies. In Nicaragua boys who play baseball also write poetry.

FHL: But I wonder whether there has been any change in the arts since the transition.

GG: The Sandinistas encouraged, even subsidized, their artists, like they do in most socialist countries.

FHL: But most socialist countries also control, or attempt to control, what kind of art gets made.

GG: Yes, I suppose. But I haven't noticed any changes. I don't think the Sandinistas exercised that kind of control.

FHL: Can we talk now about conditions in the country: prices, inflation, employment?

GG: Well, first you have to know that there are two currencies. The cordoba corriente, or common currency--which are available to the common people and are called chanceros, or piggies--that are wildly inflated. They were valued at three million to the dollar at Christmas, at four million when I left at the end of January, and I expect it will be five million when I return. It is obviously worthless currency. People will do anything to sell the chanceros for dollars. On the other hand, those in the government and other favored people get the cordoba oros, or gold coins, that are not inflated. They are worth one to the dollar and are backed by U.S. currency. [The government recently eliminated the chanceros, leaving only the more stable--at least temporarily--cordoba oros, which are now worth five to the U.S. dollar.] Meanwhile, the subsidies that the Sandinistas had in place, for instance for bus fare, have all been removed. So bus fare used to be three cents and is now twenty cents. There were price controls on food and gasoline. They're gone. When I first went to Nicaragua in 1985, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon. Now it's $2.50. Last January my light bill was $1.17. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The month after the election, my light bill was $17. The water bill, which was $2.20 a month, went up to $23. Chicken is $2.15 a pound. Pork and beef are $2 a pound. So is butter. Nicaragua is now the most expensive country in which to live in Central America. The only thing that's cheaper is cooking oil, because the Nicaraguans have lots of cottonseed oil.

FHL: And what are wages?

GG: Well, my neighbors are typical. The wife is 19. She makes tortillas and sells them in her house. Her husband does odd jobs when he can get them. They have one small child, and her mother lives with them. They have about $50 a month to live on. A schoolteacher, which is a highly respected and well-paid job, makes about $250, and a head nurse in a hospital makes about $300. Of course, there is massive unemployment--about 50 percent--probably higher in Managua because it is flooded with people who came in from the countryside to flee the war. But the biggest reason for unemployment is the soldiers who have been released from the huge army. Thousands of boys and girls are being returned to civilian life, where there are no jobs. The military budget was slashed so much that Mrs. Chamorro had to veto a further slash that the legislature wanted to push through. She said she wanted $75 million out of the annual budget of $500 million. The legislature wanted to take another 20 percent off the $75 million, but she vetoed it. And then there are the returning contras, about 20,000 from Honduras and about 50,000 people returning from Miami. The Bush administration said those people are no longer political refugees and they have to go home. So the country is flooded with people come home from the war, from either side, and they're all looking for the same jobs. Meanwhile, the country hasn't yet retooled from a war economy to a production economy. The U.S. embargo meant that there was no market for any peacetime goods, so it just wasn't made. Now, they have to retool to plant cotton again for the international market, which means they can't raise food.

FHL: What are people doing to survive?

GG: Many have no running water. They have to go and pirate water. They have no electricity. They go to sleep when it gets dark and get up with the sun. They live below subsistence. You don't see fat Nicaraguans very often except for the women who are food vendors. They eat their own goods. I had real culture shock in the Miami airport when I came back. Everyone looked fat, waddling around. Of course, you see more of that in Managua now among the prosperous ones returning from Miami.

FHL: What about those returnees? How are they fitting in?

GG: Well, they've brought a kind of temporary prosperity. There's an awful lot of house paint being sold. It looks like rivers of it are flowing. The returnees are painting up the houses they reclaimed or bought, and the restaurants and shops are being repainted. It used to be that the only paint applied to buildings was in spray cans, painting graffiti. At first glance this looks very encouraging. New life has come to Managua. Then you realize that the money for this is coming not out of the Nicaraguan economy, but dollars coming back from the U.S. to restore people's homes so that they can live the way they did before the revolution. There were 1,000 bicycles sold in the weeks before Christmas, but they were American bikes, not Nicaraguan, which the middle class scorns. They want something with an American label on it. They go to the diplomatic store and buy Kellogg's Corn Flakes. They won't dream of eating rice and beans for breakfast as they once did. But those dollars they brought back are going to run out, and the economy will not benefit from them.

FHL: Are they starting businesses?

GG: Yes, some are. But with the unemployment the way it is bound to stay for some time, even with some new businesses, it is still to be seen how successful they will be. It is interesting that all Nicaraguans want to have their own businesses. My driver asked me to lend him money to go to Costa Rica to buy some stuff to bring back and sell. Every street corner in the city has kids selling something, from California grapes at $2 a pound to things to hang on your rearview mirror and electronic toys. Everybody's selling something on the street, whether it's tortillas or toy automobiles. A few years ago you didn't see that. But it's become a nation of entrepreneurs. Everybody thinks they're going to get rich. But the real fact is that there are no jobs, and people have no money.

FHL: Are the returnees in the government too?

GG: Many are, and in industry--such as it is in Nicaragua--especially the burgeoning computer industry. People coming back with computer skills are peddling themselves to the new U.S. corporations coming in. Of course Nicaragua remains largely an agricultural country, but the big farming concerns that are beginning to develop will need a business apparatus to sell agricultural products.

FHL: Has there been a large incursion of American business already?

GG: Oh yes. For ten years you didn't see any American machines because of the embargo. Toyota took over the car market. Now you see American cars and boats too. Nicaragua has a lot of water--the Atlantic on one side, the Pacific on the other, and lots of smaller waterways. The boats are all in dreadful shape, so the Americans are selling lots of boats--to the returnees, and to the government for ferryboats, and so on. And farm equipment is another American enterprise that has come back. And Americans and Canadians are very interested in the virgin forests of southern Nicaragua and the rain forests of the north. The fast-food hamburger people who have cleared so much of Central America to raise cattle haven't arrived yet, and I don't know whether they'll have much luck in Nicaragua. On the east coast, there was a vast fishing industry that was destroyed by hurricanes and has to be rebuilt, and Nicaragua doesn't have the resources to do it. American companies will be there. There is also silver, and mahogany, and royal cedar--all of which is like honey for American industry--while Nicaragua has no money to invest in exploiting its own resources.

The one thing that Chamorro refused, which surprised us, was a permit to allow American waste disposal to come in and dump in the country. They apparently offered handsome rewards, but she refused.

FHL: I assume there was some redistribution of the land by the Sandinistas. What is happening to that land now?

GG: There actually wasn't much. Somoza and his family owned a piece of Nicaragua the size of El Salvador. Nicaragua is a pretty big country--the size of England without Wales or Scotland. El Salvador is small, but imagine one family owning all of El Salvador. Most of that land was expropriated by the Sandinistas; unfortunately they didn't distribute it to individual owners, but instead encouraged people to live on large farm cooperatives. This was one of the things that disaffected many of the campesinos, that they didn't get their own plots of land. Along came the contras, who said, "You'll never get your own land under the Sandinistas. If you come with us, you'll get land." The campesinos, many of them, went with the contras, and now they have learned that the land will go back to the great landowners--the latifundista, or absentee landlords who, like in all Latin America and in Texas, own huge ranches. I think that was a big mistake of the Sandinistas. They did begin to give land to the campesinos about a year before the elections, but it was too late. Too many were disaffected.

FHL: What has happened to those communal farms?

GG: Well, it's still going on. One that I know well, in Matiguas, has voted to sell the cooperative and divvy up the money. They may each buy their own plot, though they may find that it doesn't work. I fear that what will happen is that this pattern will prevail and all those small farmers will be dispossessed eventually like so many small farmers in the U.S. have been. They have to borrow for seeds and equipment at 15 percent interest. And then when the crops don't sell at prices big enough to pay their debts, the lands will be taken and sold to the latifundistas.

FHL: Besides Somoza's land, what else did the Sandinistas expropriate and what is happening to it?

GG: Well, the banks were nationalized. The chances are that the government will retain ownership of them in order to control monetary policy to meet the requirements of the austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. They are closing some of them, both because they believe there are too many and to get rid of state employees to cut costs. The Sandinistas also nationalized the sales of products on the international market. Coffee, cotton, sugar, and other products had to be sold to the government, which in turn sold it on the international markets. Also, the Sandinistas created a coffee-roasting industry that they owned. Previously, the raw coffee was shipped abroad for roasting. Now all of that business is being sold to private owners. The employees are getting together, trying to buy them. Even the bus company. There was a big strike recently, with the drivers trying to buy the lines, but the government seems to prefer to sell to private individuals or groups of middle-class investors. But all that is in transition.

FHL: What's going on in education?

GG: Well, I suppose it's a bit of a laugh. One of my North American friends down there has been a teacher there for years. When her visa expired, she applied for a renewal. She was refused. She was told, "We don't want any North Americans in our schools." To be completely consistent, they replaced all the Sandinista textbooks in the schools--which had come from Norway and Cuba--with books published by the U.S. Office of Information. Also, the minister of education said he wants Catholic social teaching in the public schools. This was strongly opposed by the teacher's union. It is still being negotiated.

FHL: You mentioned pensions for the aged earlier. Are they still in place?

GG: Well, they are now, but it took demonstrations and strikes to keep them there. There are constant demonstrations about all these benefits. Recently there was a two-month vigil across from the presidential palace by the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs demanding the restoration of the pensions of these women which were ended. They succeeded, and Violeta agreed to negotiate. But every step of the way there are demonstrations, strikes, tire burnings in the street to get the government to live up to its commitments. The motto of the Sandinistas since the change of government is "Not one step backward."

FHL: The U.S. promised $300 million aid to the Chamorro government. What's happened to it?

GG: My figures may be slightly off, but they're pretty close. Between $30 and $40 million was in fact received, to buy American office furniture and equipment for the new government. In addition, between $60 and $70 million was received to resettle the contras. Each former contra received $50, a pair of boots, a coat, and a piece of land. But the land they were given is mountainous, undeveloped, with no electricity or running water. So, many of them found it easier to go into towns and just take over the lands that the Sandinista campesinos had cleared and developed. There have been clashes where they tried to drive the campesinos off their land in which there have been some deaths.

FHL: Have there been other instances of clashes between the Sandinistas and the contras?

GG: Well, there haven't been any clashes between the army and the contras that resulted in deaths, but there have been cases of killings of other Sandinistas. The contras have taken over highways and bridges, with deaths resulting, in efforts to take over whole areas so that they could take the land and whatever else is there. At one point they demanded that Mrs. Chamorro fly to a distant town to negotiate with several local right-wing mayors. But she was warned that they intended to kidnap her and hold her until Virgilio Godoy was brought in to negotiate her release, which would have greatly increased his power. She wisely didn't go. Eventually, she did go, under cover of the army.

FHL: To return to the question of U.S. aid, has any more been received?

GG: No. There was the money for the furniture and for the contras. That was all. The rumors are that the U.S. has said it will not provide the rest of the aid until Mrs. Chamorro withdraws Nicaragua's claim against the U.S. for $18 billion that the World Court at the Hague decreed the U.S. should pay because it had waged a mercenary war against Nicaragua. So far Mrs. Chamorro is refusing to withdraw that claim.

FHL: Has there been aid from any other countries?

GG: There have been some commitments from the member nations of the Club of Rome, but they were not significant amounts. And the Scandinavian countries have continued their aid, which has been the largest of any country. They've always given Nicaragua aid; they have the biggest embassies and staffs in Managua. They are democratic-socialist countries, and they're committed to help the experiment in Nicaragua.

FHL: Now I'd like to talk for a bit about the liberation clergy and nuns in Nicaragua. I've had an image of a large group of them working down there, helping the poor, preaching socialism, opposing the contras. Is that an accurate picture?

GG: Oh, it's not a large group. There are less than 100. They come from Holland, Spain, and other countries, as well as North America.

FHL: Well, 100 sounds like a fairly large number for a country with only three million people. Who are these people?

GG: They are Maryknollers--the North American Foreign Mission Society of the Roman Catholic Church--and Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Moravians, Anglicans--most denominations, I think. But most are Roman Catholics from special orders like the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits. The Jesuits who were killed in El Salvador had first been in Nicaragua.

FHL: Do you consider yourself a liberation priest?

GG: Yes, of course. I came to liberation theology when I was with Dr. [Martin Luther] King in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964. The North American manifestation of liberation theology is primarily in the black liberation movement, the women's movement, and the gay and lesbian movement, and I've been very active in all of them for many years. In Latin America it's the economically rather than the socially oppressed we are concerned with. In our approach, theology begins in our own experience and not from any revealed word or from any all-powerful church. All liberation theology begins with what one person called "ideological suspicion" that what we've been told about our experience by the dominant culture is not true. As a gay man, I discovered early on that what was told to me about being gay by the church, which said it is sinful, by the state, which said it was a crime, and by the medical industry, which said it was a sickness--all these were not true to my experience. And I learned that much of what I'd been taught about the world was not true. So you go to your religious sources, whatever they are, for a different interpretation.

FHL: Are you a Marxist?

GG: I've read very little Marx or Engels, but I would say that anybody who's really living in the 20th century is a Marxist in the same sense that we are all Freudians. I don't see how we can avoid being heirs to the two great minds of the 20th century, the one in socioeconomics and the other in psychology--the internal and external aspects of the personality.

FHL: Marx advocated, to the extent that he actually advocated, that the competitive impulses are not true human impulses. Do you agree?

GG: I don't think we have to go to Marx for that. We can go to the eighth century BC Jewish prophets or to the New Testament, in which the early Christians shared everything and there wasn't a hungry person among them. I believe Marx was a postbiblical prophet. But I don't think we have to go to Marx to understand that competition is destructive to the human psyche and that cooperation and communal ownership is the better way for human beings to live.

FHL: How do liberation clergy operate in Nicaragua? Are they in official churches, or do they operate more or less like you do?

GG: Liberation theology is done at the grass roots. It began in prerevolutionary years with Ernesto Cardenal, who was a Catholic priest [and a famous poet] who studied with Thomas Merton. He went back to Nicaragua and founded a community in which the country people came and read scripture with him and made their own interpretations. Those bible studies were tape-recorded and are now a four-volume classic work. That's how liberation theology is done.

FHL: Well, that doesn't really answer my question about the structures within which they operate.

GG: Well, I guess the answer is that some have small churches, and some are working outside of what one of my friends calls the RMO, or Religious Maintenance Organizations--the Sunday churches. Most of the North American clergy are working either through religious orders such as the Maryknollers or the Jesuits, and some of them have small churches that are not under the control of the right-wing Roman Catholic cardinal, Obando y Bravo, and are free to be liberationists. Or they're Protestant missionaries who have no churches in Nicaragua. There is an Anglican church because the east coast of Nicaragua was once an English colony, but the church there still has the colonial mentality. It seems that so many in Latin America who are the heirs to the oppressors have only the model of the oppressor by which to see themselves as men. No one in North America could get away with what the Nicaraguan Anglican bishop does. But to answer your question, you have to understand that liberation theology is not being done only by ordained clergy. It's also being done by lay people whose inspiration is theological. They are acting out their faith in God by doing all kinds of things--social welfare, education, medicine, politics. Both the actual clergy and nuns and lay people are working in all kinds of activities to help people and to educate them.

FHL: I assume that, like the rest of Latin America, Nicaragua is almost entirely a Catholic country. Are the people devout? And are many of the local priests liberationists?

GG: The people are very devout, but they are not churchgoers. Many of the Sandinistas, for example, are Christian socialists who have nothing to do with the established church, and many of the ordinary people are influenced by them. As far as the local priests are concerned, they couldn't be liberationists and keep their posts. One of the two local priests who founded an ecumenical organization of liberationists was removed from his post by the pope after 30 years. The cardinal managed that. The other man who founded that organization was teaching in a Baptist seminary so the cardinal couldn't touch him. And the cardinal makes sure that his priests don't get any liberation training. He controls the Nicaraguan seminary.

FHL: As I understand it, the Sandinistas encouraged the liberationists. What is the attitude of the Chamorro government?

GG: The Sandinistas had a department of religious affairs headed by a Christian socialist, of which there were many among them. They were happy to have our solidarity, and we met with them regularly. The official church of course, which was tolerated by the Sandinistas, said of us, "Those fools are being used by the communists." But we had a close relationship with the government. That's over with. The new minister of education is antiliberationist. He has always been associated with the right-wing church, with the Puebla Institute in the U.S. They have refused to renew the visas of North Americans who didn't have the foresight that some of us did to get seven-year visas from the Sandinistas before the new government took over.

FHL: What is the attitude of the liberationists to the Chamorro government?

GG: At first we were horrified and sure that we were going to feel the lash when we saw who she appointed to her cabinet. Until the July strike everyone was frightened. Then after she signed those agreements in July, we began to feel more comfortable with her. And she kept Humberto Ortega as head of the army. She also refused to withdraw Nicaragua's claim against the U.S. So it looks like Mrs. Chamorro will not be caving in to be a puppet of Harry Shlaudeman, the American ambassador.

FHL: Do you have any relationship with Shlaudeman?

GG: No. In fact recently, at one of the Thursday demonstrations at the embassy, a friend said, "Grant, have you met Mrs. Shlaudeman?" I said, "No, why should I?" My friend explained, "She's an Episcopalian, and she's apparently very lonely. She'd love to have an Episcopalian clergy call on her." Well, I haven't called on Mrs. Shlaudeman because she was apparently warned off. I tried to make an appointment but was told nothing could be arranged. So she couldn't be that lonely. It looks to us as if Shlaudeman is trying to undercut Chamorro's government. The U.S. doesn't approve of Ortega remaining as head of the army. And they don't like the fact that the Sandinistas still also control the police department, though Chamorro is trying to end that by not raising the salaries of the police in hopes that they will resign.

I'd like to end this with a story about Dom Helder Camara, who is the Brazilian archbishop and a liberationist. He said, "When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why are the poor hungry, they called me a communist."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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