There’s a picture that hangs just beside my bed. It’s a reproduction of a photo that was taken of me when I was eighteen. I keep it up there for a couple of reasons. First it’s a remarkable portrait. It was taken early one morning at the Shelburne Ontario Fiddle Festival. It features my head and shoulders: my hair is long and covered in a floppy hat that has Tim Curry’s signature scrawled across it and my hands are cupping a harmonica which I was trying to learn how and play(without any success).
I’m bleary eyed from lack of sleep and over indulgence but it really captures who I was at that time in my life. But aesthetic qualities aside its value is increased because it is the only memento I have of a friend who was killed nearly twenty years ago. As long as I have this picture I can not forget him and the reasons for his death.
His death was the only time that world affairs and political decisions have ever directly impacted on my life. I have never lived in a war zone, seen people killed under fire, or had to survive any of the traumas too many people in this world deal with as a daily existence. But the blame for the death of my friend can be laid directly at the feet of the men in Washington D.C. who decided to break the laws of their country and illegally supply arms to the terrorists trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
The irony of his death was that he had actually come under fire from the “contras” while serving in a school house building brigade in Nicaragua . In the 1980’s a variety of groups in Canada, mainly church and other Non Government Organizations (N.G.O.’s) would send down groups to help outlying communities build things like schools, or irrigation systems. Do the little things that would help improve their standard of living. Help them help themselves.
These farming communities were usually targets of the brave contra’s, especially the one’s bordering Guatemala where the American run bases were. They would sneak across the border and rain mortar and machine gun fire down on these villages, killing anything they could and then run away before the army could show up. These were the people Ronald RayGuns compared to founding father’s of America.
He managed to survive those times in the bush. I never had the opportunity to talk with him about it to see how it felt. But I imagine he was pretty cool under fire. Not much ever seemed to faze him. The last time I saw him turned out to be shortly before his death. He was just finishing up his journalism degree and was preparing to go back to Nicaragua and start covering the story on the ground.
He had no pretence of being unbiased, all of our group had been fervent supporters of the Sandanistas and their attempts to pull the country out of its poverty. They had a long hard road to travel and he wanted to walk with them and record it. I’m sure he would have had no problems with access to information because of his previous work as a brigade worker, and as an English language reporter from North America willing to tell things from the Sandinista point of view would only have increased his value to them.
My friend was killed shortly thereafter in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city. He had just stepped off the curb when a truck came out of nowhere and ran him down and vanished. If someone wants you dead there is no easier way then a traffic accident if done by professionals. Maybe he wasn’t important enough to warrant that kind of attention and I’m just a paranoid
But at the time of his death the American government were really cranking up the propaganda war against the Ortega government. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to believe that the C.I.A. or the contras could have a hand in silencing someone who had the potential to speak against them. My friend’s contacts in Canada did include people in mass circulation newspapers and that could have been seen as a potential threat.
Even if that was not the case, the fact remains that he would not have been on that street corner if it weren’t for the policies of the American government at that time. If they could have followed the practice implemented by the previous Jimmy Carter administration of non intervention in popular uprisings and the withdrawal of American influence from Central America, his death would not have happened.
The United States has a long and tawdry history with South/Central America and the Caribbean. Since the Monroe doctrine of 1810 extolling their right of “Manifest Destiny” over the whole of the western Hemisphere they have treated these areas as their personal fiefdoms. Politicians make derisive comments about “tin pot banana republics” when it has been their own policies that have created most of those regimes.
Putting the interests of American fruit growers and sugar manufactures above the local population was seen as the major prerequisite for a politician to gain the backing of the U. S. The slightest indication of independent thought would be rewarded with a quick change to a government deemed more suitable. Not surprisingly this has led to a fair amount of resentment and mistrust on the part of the majority of peoples from these parts of the world.
Grinding poverty and death squads looking to quash opposition and preserve the land holdings of the chosen few were facts of life in countries endorsed by the U.S. But that is a legacy that can be overcome. What may not be as easily overcome were the years of single crop growth. Who knows what permanent damage has been done to agricultural land where all that has been grown have been bananas and sugar cane? Will these countries ever be able produce sufficient diversity in crops to reduce their reliance on exports for survival?
What happens when a people have no hope? Well look at Columbia as an example of how an alternative crop stepped in to fill the void. With the coffee plantations owned by so few individuals, and the market so variable, people chose something that offered a guaranteed return: Cocaine. I’m not saying that the morality was right, but to them it must have made economic sense.
The irony of it all is that because of their policies in the first place it was the American government that provided the impetus for the growth of the drug cartels and their wide sphere of influence. No one has offered the poor farmers an alternative crop to this day from the one that they can sell to the drug lords.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter started to reverse over a hundred years of interference. With such symbolic steps as signing over the Panama Canal to the Panamanians he was beginning the long process of rebuilding diplomatic rather then autocratic relationships with his southern neighbours. Unfortunately the overthrowing of another American puppet, The Shah of Iran, opened the door for Ronald Regan and a return to the old patterns.
Countless people have needlessly died since the 1980’s, including American nationals, because of these policies. Each of these people have friends or family somewhere who keep a treasured keepsake as a memento of a person who won’t ever come home again. I remember when Ronald Regan died and tributes poured in from all over him. For me his true legacy is a picture that hangs beside my bed and the memories of a life ended too early.
Perhaps if more politicians had a photo like that beside their bed the world would be a little safer and saner. I’d like to think so.