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Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

James Tracy
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001
    Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz has defined the term engaged intellectual through a life spent on the frontlines of the past four decades of social struggles. Born to a rural working-class white family in Oklahoma, she has never abandoned her roots through the process of becoming one of the most respected Left academics in the United States. Atdifferent times in her life, she has been involved with the armed revolutionary underground (detailed in her book Outlaw Woman), an early radical feminist, and active in civil society through the United Nations. Throughout these changes, she has actually remained quite consistent as a working-class voice that has connected the class struggle to anti-white supremacy, feminist, and indigenous work.

    Her latest book Blood On The Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years (South End Press), details her involvement with the efforts to defend the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution from the US-funded “Contra” War. Many of the same neo-conservatives who planned this war from the comfort of the United States are central in the planning of the invasion and occupation of Iraq; making her book essential for today’s activists. Dr. Ortiz is a professor of Ethnic Studies at California State, Hayward. (James Tracy)

    LT: I remember you saying at a speaking engagement that you fell in love with the Sandinista revolution? What made it so special in your eyes? What set it apart from other revolutionary projects?

    RDO: What I liked about it, was that they were people just like us. I knew so many of them here in San Francisco. At the time it had the second largest Nicaraguan population outside of Managua. After Augusto Cesar Sandino was assassinated in 1934 and the Somoza dictatorship was put in, they really wanted to export Sandinistas, get them out of the country. That was a really large part of the population, since it was quite a popular movement. The United States set up a very different system for Nicaraguan workers to immigrate here. Remember, there were only two million people there, even if 100,000 or 500,000 people came, the U.S. figured it wouldn’t be a stress on immigration. They had so much experience working for U.S. corporations, in mining and fruit; there were no restrictions put on them, unlike workers from most other countries. They could come as they wished. The main place they settled was San Francisco, the Noe Valley neighborhood was almost all Nicaraguan and our Mission is still largely so. I knew a lot of them. I knew the poets Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murgia, who is Chicano, but married to a Nicaraguan. They went down to fight in the revolution., they also founded the Mission Cultural Center here.

    The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were disorganized! Just like any leftists here, it seemed! It was like the youth revolution here had won. They were kind of bumbling in some ways, but they were sincere, they were so sincere. I fell in love with that even before I went there, but more so when I went there. But I fell in love with what they were doing there, they produced a huge literacy campaign, they were so idealistic in what they were doing. They went out into the countryside and taught people how to write poetry, this got everyone wanting to be a poet. It is the only country in the world where being a poet is the highest thing you can be. So the aspiration was to know the language so you could write poetry. All over there were poetry workshops, it was the most amazing thing.

    Then there was this damn contra war, eating away at that. Seeing that deteriorate, it was just heartbreaking.

    LT: Yes, it seemed as if the Contras really target the best parts of the Sandinista revolution.

    RDO: Especially in those really poor rural areas. Any kind of development workers trying to bring electricity in, any little thing like that they attacked. Most of these people were people form the communities themselves. My favorite story was in 1980, the Sandinista government needed a helicopter, a civilian helicopter, they needed to drop supplies in flooded areas. Somoza's National Guard had destroyed all of the military equipment. A Nicaraguan living in San Antonio said, “I can buy one for you from Bell Helicopter.” The Sandinistas checked on how much it would cost to ship it, and the cost would have been more than the helicopter. So they sent two people who could fly airplanes, never a helicopter, up to Texas to get it! This is the crazy scheme you and I might think of! They got up in the air and they were intercepted by US military jets. As far as I know the pilots are still in prison. They lost the money, the helicopter was confiscated.

    They had no experience in constructing a government, and Somoza left nothing to work from. Most of the Sandinistas were poets, journalists, and teachers. There was a lot of guerilla activity, but it was symbolic as many guerrilla movements are in Latin America. It really was a mass revolutionary movement, the Sandinistas would have never have won militarily without the people!

    LT: It seems to me that two struggles you were involved with, the South African anti-apartheid one, mentioned in your last book, and the Nicaraguan solidarity efforts were really the most significant solidarity undertakings of the US Left since the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Why do you think these struggles just caught people’s imaginations?

    RDO: South Africa didn’t at first. The African National Conference (ANC) was not really well known here until the 1970s with the formation of the Black Identity Movement. I got involved with the ANC in 1964, and I think our solidarity group at UCLA was the first one in solidarity with the ANC in this country. Others started in the 1960s, but it was really a low-point for the ANC, after so many were arrested like Mandela or in exile. I went to London in 1967, where ANC headquarters. It was really Steven Biko's death that brought the anti-apartheid movement to the US, then the students here became active, building shanty towns on campuses.

    There were young people who came to study here, these were the same people who recruited me to solidarity work, those in exile studying here. They worked tirelessly to inform people but it was an uphill battle, so many things to compete for people’s attention. Vietnam number one, and there was Angola, and Mozambique, Guinea Bissau. In our movement here Students for a Democratic Society supported all those liberation movements.

    LT: In the Bay Area, it seemed as if everyone knew someone who was doing something on Nicaragua.

    RDO: Absolutely that’s because there were so many Nicaraguans here, and most of them were from Sandinista families. Ernesto Cardenal [former Sandinista Minister of Culture] grew up in Palo Alto, California. Many had served in the U.S. military. In the 1960s, Central Americans were involved in the Chicano movement. But Los Siete [a group of youth accused of killing a police officer] were Central Americans. The Bay Area was probably the center of solidarity activity. I don’t think that Nicaraguan solidarity ever grew nationally to the extent that South African solidarity did. I was very involved in it, because I was here. I went to New Mexico from 1978-80 and no one knew about the Sandinistas there. When I was doing United Nations work I got Sandinistas to UN meetings in 1978. The African National Congress was very involved in the UN system, they had observer status in the UN.

    It was a good way for liberation movements to be recognized. Various liberation groups, the ANC, the PLO and the Pan-African Congress all had status in the UN thanks to the PLO pushing that through in 1972. They could build infrastructure there, learn how to do diplomacy, really they were like a governments in exile. The Sandinistas never did have that, it was a unique struggle within, not against colonialism but a standing government.

    That doesn’t happen very often! Not since the Bolshevik revolution.

    LT: Was there a disconnect between the Sandinista leadership, made up largely from the upper classes, and their working-class base?

    RDO: There was almost a mystical relationship between Sandinista leadership and their working class base. The majority of Nicaraguan workers were agricultural, few "middle" farmers, so they were enthusiastic to form agricultural cooperatives on the lands that they had worked for wealthy land holders who fled to Miami and San Francisco following the revolution.

    Among the nine leaders of the FSLN Directorate, only Tomas Borge and Henry Ruiz were from the working class. Both Jaime Wheelock and Luis Carrion were from ruling class families. The other five were not from rich families but were from families of teachers, engineers, professional families. They had all been trained by Carlos Fonseca who was an amazing teacher, a deeply democratic personality, devoted to the poor and working class.

    LT: Were there different factions within the Sandinista party?

    RDO: Three factions of the FSLN formed in 1972, and sharpened after Fonseca's death in 1975. Those fault lines never disappeared. But, they were united in basing the revolution in the working class. The three factions were: Prolonged People's War, whose leaders were fighting inside Nicaragua: Henry Ruiz and Tomas Borge Proletarian Tendency, led by Jaime Wheelock, and the Insurrectional or Third Tendency, led by Humberto Ortega who was based in Havana and Daniel Ortega who was in prison in Managua, and their brother Camilo.

    Yet, the FSLN never split as in other revolutionary movements. They put differences aside for the insurrection that overthrew Somoza, and divided their responsibilities according to factions, a kind of balance of power.

    My first trip to Nicaragua in May 1981 was with a trade union delegation from San Francisco made up of members of the SIEU (service workers union, CWA (communication workers), Building Trades, and ILWU (longshoremen and warehouse workers), and me, for the UPC, United Professors of California. We visited every shop floor in Managua, longshoreman at Puerto Corinto, the main port, and a coffee workers cooperative in the mountains, accompanied by Sandinista officials. It was thrilling to see the equality, love, and brother/sister hood between workers. The workers considered themselves to be THE Sandinistas. I also stayed for three weeks in the CST (Sandinista Workers Confederation) hospitality house in Managua, where Sandinista labor organizers from all over the country came and went. For me, being from the working class, it was like dying and going to heaven!

    LT: I was told that there was a part of the Sandinista party which argued for more decentralized governance structure, based on Workers Councils. Do you remember any of this debate?

    RDO: I think the Sandinistas fundamentally supported decentralization, with power emerging from the people in their organizations, and I witnessed the tail end of two years of that process. But with the military threat from outside, from the US, and the reorganization to a war footing, naturally a command structure (and draft) ensued. Yet, the workers' militias were the fundamental basis for defense. It is painful to imagine how the Sandinista revolution would have developed had US intervention not been the main reality. I think it would have been beyond our wildest dreams of mutuality and openness.

    LT: Unfortunately, many people who helped engineer the Contra counter-revolution under Reagan are back under George W Bush!

    RDO: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I decided to do this book, Blood On The Border. I had written a version of it when the Sandinistas were voted out of power in early 1990. I had worked on it for two years. I was writing it as a novel, but I put it aside, and then it became less and less relevant. In the mid-nineties, no one was interested in the story anymore. Who would read a book about Nicaragua? I began to notice that all of these creepy people who had acted to murder thousands of people and a revolution started to show up in all of these neo-conservative think tanks. Places like the Project For A New American Century.

    LT: The same people who wrote the plan for invading Iraq right before Bush took office,right?

    RDO: I thought “All of these people were involved in Nicaragua.” I remember Larry Sabato, he is a political science professor who is always on FOX. Someone asked him what he thought of John Negroponte being appointed to the Bush Administration with his baggage in the Iran-Contra scandal. He said “You could ask every US citizen and you might find two or three who would remember that word, that time.”

    LT: He’s right, in a way.

    RDO: He’s right. I said “I have to do something. Even if it goes nowhere. I have to do this. I was an eyewitness." As soon as I finished Outlaw Woman, I started on this book, and South End Press picked it up. It is really scary because all of these people are criminals, indicted co-conspirators. Eliot Abrams is in charge of the Middle East for the National Security Council, as he was in charge of Latin America for Reagan. Negroponte easily became US Ambassador for the UN in 2001, there wasn’t even a problem getting him through. Of course, he got shooed through right after 9/11. Then he was co-counsel just as he had been in Honduras, running the Contra War, he was put over there in Iraq. Now he’s the national intelligence chief in charge of the "war on terror."

    This goes back even further because some of them had also been involved in running the Vietnam War under Nixon!

    LT: Like who?

    RDO: Like Negroponte, he was a political officer in Saigon. Colin Powell, who was brought in to apologize for the Mai Lai massacre and tell people lies about it to make it look better in 1969. He was brought in again in 1986 as Reagan’s National Security Advisor, cleaning up after Iran-Contra. He was basically playing clean-up man and playing the same role in the Bush Administration, going to the UN and lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction. In his autobiography, he brags about his role in Nicaragua, like its one of the biggest moments in his life. Then there’s these think-tank people. Richard Perle was an important person in the Reagan Administration, behind the Nicaraguan policy, then here’s the father and son team Richard and Daniel Pikes. They were always being brought in to defend Reagan’s Nicaragua policy. It is really all of them over 45 years old, they really got their start there under Nixon. Richard Cheney was in Congress and he carried the Contra funding, he was the point man for that.

    LT: As you wrote in the book, the Sandinista Revolution also did something previously thought impossible: it all of a sudden turned the Reagan Administration into advocates for Indigenous people! Can you talk about the Sandinista’s troubles with the Miskito Indians.

    RDO: Early on the Sandinistas were pro-Indigenous. Carlos Fonseca had written a very beautiful letter, to the American Indian Movement during the Wounded Knee siege in 1973, saying “your struggle is our struggle.” Immediately the U.S. started working through the US missionaries in Nicaragua to undermine the relationship between the Miskito Indians and the Sandinistas. The British first brought Moravian missionaries in 1854, and then when the Marines occupied in 1892 they kicked out the German missionaries and brought in the US Moravian mission from Bethelem, Pennsylvania. The Miskitos wanted to be part of the United States, they were totally controlled by the US missionaries. For me, having grown up a Southern Baptist, I totally could relate. They acted exactly as I had when I was young, a devout Christian, patriotic to the US. They were being lied to, and about half of them figured that out and joined the Sandinistas.

    That’s really the story behind it, how the CIA organized to recruit Miskitos. The border between Honduras and Nicaragua cuts right through their heartland. That border used to be farther north, but in 1960, Honduras went to the world court and prevailed to have the border brought south, cutting Miskito territory, half in Nicaragua, half in Honduras. All colonial borders are unstable borders, like the Rio Grande in 1848 becoming the US-Mexico border when the US invaded Mexico City. On these borders, mostly Indigenous People live. Mohawks in Canada and the US. Yaquis and Apaches in Mexico and the US, and so on.

    You had people who related to each other on each side of the border. Then it became sealed, during the Contra war. Anytime anyone would cross over to Honduras, they couldn’t come back, and they would wind up in refugee camps with pressure to join the anti-Sandinista insurgents. The Miskitos had been used to trading and bartering with each other across the border, and they could use either Honduran currency or Nicaraguan currency, it really didn’t matter. But then everything was frozen. The CIA was able to manipulate that and say that Miskito Indians were fleeing Nicaragua in terror.

    LT: Was there any truth at all to the allegations of Sandinista atrocities against the Miskitos?

    RDO: No, except that war took place there on the border. It was one of the three war zones in the plan to overthrow the Sandinistas. The US lie that was most publicized here was that 200,000 Miskitos had been killed. There were only 150,000 Miskitos! They could say anything they wanted. That’s the logic of the big lie. Then people ask how many people did they kill? 5000? In my book that’s genocide. I never understood what the Big Lie was about until then. The human logic doesn’t say well there might have been no civilians killed outside of war casualties.

    In November 1981, the first CIA plan was approved and funded secretly. Shortly thereafter, Nicaragua’s only airliner was bombed, and I was waiting to board that plane in Mexico City. They called that Operation Red Christmas, Navidad Roja. By that time, they had quite a few Miskitos in training camps in Honduras, and they were training about ten of them to be Contra commanders. So they made their first attacks in these villages, in these seventy or so villages along the Rio Coco (Wanki in the Miskito language), the river that marks the border between Honduras and Nicaragua in the northeast of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas made the decision to create a free-fire zone and evacuate the Miskito villages. They knew that whatever civilian deaths occurred, they would be blamed for it. They built these makeshift camps about forty miles south of the border. Most went, but some went over to Honduras. They were told by the Contra radio, and the US missionaries that the Cubans were establishing these camps, and the Cubans were going to take their land along the river border, lock up the Indians in concentration camps, and that they would be tortured. If you don’t know what to believe, why take a chance on being in a Cuban prison? About half of the Miskito population in those villages crossed the border into Honduras. The evacuation of the villages was presented here as the Sandinistas taking their land and that they would never allow the Miskitos to return. You couldn’t really prove otherwise until two or three years later when they did go back to rebuild their villages that had been completely flattened by war.

    LT: But they were allowed to return and rebuild?

    RDO: I was with them when they did. Then, a reconciliation process took place. It was difficult because the Sandinistas didn’t understand some basic things about the Miskitos. Up to a point, the Sandinistas thought of themselves as indigenous to Nicaragua. Son after they took power, the Sandinistas really enraged the Miskitos. One of the greatest projects, outside of the Literacy campaigns was the handing out of land titles, the titles to the land abandoned by the Somacistas who fled after the revolution. The state took it and gave the land titles to the people who had worked that land. It was just overwhelmingly popular in western Nicaragua. But they went out to the Miskito land and tried to hand out titles, the Indians said “Why are you giving us our land!?”

    LT: That is pretty insensitive!

    RDO: The Miskitos had their own system of land tenure and it was just being messed up by the Sandinistas. That’s why I was invited down by Roberto Vargas, since I had done similar work around Indigenous land tenure in New Mexico. By the time I got there, in 1981, the Sandinistas were beginning to get it, but a few Miskito leaders and their followers had already decided on war.

    The Sandinistas had really over reacted when Reagan took office in January 1981. Carter was really bad, cutting off food aid to Nicaragua, but Reagan had made it his campaign platform to oust the Sandinistas. Richard Perle and many of the other Republican players met in Santa Fe, New Mexico to draft the Santa Fe paper on how they were going to oust the Sandinistas within a year. That paper was leaked and the Sandinistas got a hold of it.

    In February 1981, the Sandinistas arrested the Miskito leadership. Then there was a shoot-out in one of the villages at a graduation ceremony for one of the Miskito literacy program. Sandinista police went into a Moravian church, where the ceremony was being held, to arrest a leader. Two drunken Sandinista soldiers heard the ruckus and began shooting. When the dust settled, four Sandinista police and four Miskito civilians were dead. By the time I got to the northeast in May 1981, there was really a lot of tension.

    LT: Did you try to engage the Sandinistas on Indigenous issues after that?

    RDO: We engaged. I always kicked myself for not going earlier. I felt if I had been down there a year before, I could have done much more. But I never have felt comfortable chasing revolutions, I thought it was like following fire trucks. It took a lot of persuasion to get me there. Once the Sandinistas were under attack, they had to defend themselves. They learned in the process and in dialog with Miskito leaders who had stayed, some amazing young leaders like Dr. Mirna Cunningham, a Miskito and a surgeon who was appointed governor of the Miskito region, and many others.

    LT: I think a lot of people with anti-authoritarian politics in the U.S. were suspicious that the Miskito situation was a repeat of the Kronstadt situation in revolutionary Russia; proof that state-based socialism would end in tyranny.

    RDO: The situation was much more complex than that. People who came to that conclusion were believing the propaganda here, it was everywhere. There was a great propaganda machine, The Office of Public Diplomacy, headed by Otto Reich who was until recently was Bush’s point person on Latin American affairs.

    LT: Moving up to today’s movements--most of us who participate in them from here in the United States are always struggling to link international solidarity work with meaningful local work. We rarely succeed. Do you have any thoughts on how to get better at this?

    RDO: I certainly thought that many of our solidarity movements in the 1970s suffered from that. After the breakdown of much of our efforts in the sixties, international solidarity became the focus for many. We were organizing people in their own communities to act in solidarity with people all over the world, but not necessarily relating it to what was going on in their own lives. So you bring in students, but the work isn’t really affecting much in the local community. I think now it is just the opposite. The younger generation of activists are amazingly interested in grassroots work. But I think they don’t connect up enough the larger picture. There seems to be a fear of bringing the two together. That has changed a bit with the war in Iraq, but it seems to remain compartmentalized.

    LT: The anti-war movement lost a great opportunity to link the massive cuts in social spending, like housing, to the bigger picture, no?

    RDO: Yes, In some way it is human nature. Those of us who have a foot in both worlds have an important role to play to make the connections. This generation is a little more cautious about spreading itself too thin, much more than we were in the 1960s.

    LT: You have worked for years within the United Nations to raise the issues of indigenous people. A lot of people might be really cynical about the potential to work there to make any meaningful change. Have gains ever really been made there?

    RDO: Yes. Most people in the United States aren’t aware of any part of the United Nations except for the Security Council which is completely US dominated. You have to have nuclear weapons to sit on that council. The rest of the UN does deal with social and economic and cultural issues, human rights. Ever since the UN came to exist, there had been the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War invasion, when the US rode in and announced, “Now its ours.” The first UN meeting I attended after the invasion of Iraq in 1991 was like going into a room filled with rape victims.

    But, two things happened during the 1990s that broke the deadness of the UN. One was the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, which was remarkable. 200,000 women mostly from Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America were there. The other was the conference on Racism in Durban in 2001. That conference ended on Sunday September 8th, then September 11th happened.

    LT: Were you traveling back to the US when September 11th hit?

    RDO: I arrived home the morning of September 11th, about 1am, I had jet lag, I couldn’t sleep. I watched the whole thing on television and said there goes everything we gained at that conference. It was a remarkable conference, people from all over the world together. It was so successful the US walked out. The Bush administration sent two jerks, white guys, who just sat at their desks and talked, didn’t listen! But the UN, even the Security Council, became bold enough that it refused to endorse the invasion of Iraq.

    Now the US is trying to get rid of the UN Commission on Human Rights , and all of the parts of the UN in which civil society can participate and lobby and have an effect. It remains to be seen how much they will destroy in the process.

    LT: But is it still contested space?

    RDO: It is, and a lot is at stake for the international indigenous movement. The American Indian Movement formed the International Indian Treaty Council in 1974 and decided, right after Wounded Knee, to take US-Indian treaties to the United Nations. We built machinery within the UN that makes a difference in relation to the governments. There are times when the US State Department has to give in to some victories there. I always wanted to see more African Americans and immigrants involved. There was no grassroots US representation in the UN process, except for Native Americans, until Durban. Now there is working group on people of African descent.

    LT: Today, what keeps you inspired instead of retired?

    RDO: This isn’t a world I could live in without going mad unless I had a culture within a culture, world within a world to function in. Being inside a movement, no matter how fractious, is necessary. Sometimes I have an image of a castle with a moat around it. The trick is to get people out into the plains, then to storm the castle. That was a beautiful thing about the 1960s, it allowed us to create a new space. Even today, you can go anywhere in the world and find communities of activists, in the jungles of the Amazon, indigenous villages. People have always struggled but it wasn’t always that you could be inside a network like that.

    That is what keeps me going, not being alone and isolated. I remember in the 1960s when all of the terrible things started to happen like COINTELPRO, the movement became so shut down. Mistrust grew. People were reluctant to let anyone in. New people didn’t know how to join the movement, they were not made to feel welcome. We have to build it to be stronger, so people know there is a refuge. We have to be very kind to each other. We're in it for the long haul. It is life itself.

    LT: I’m sure what you described helped sectarianism grow like a cancer.

    RDO: Yes, the Communist Party had the same problem in the 1950s. It became very insular. I just feel so lucky, maybe it was moving to San Francisco. I feel lucky that I didn’t become alienated due to the things I talk about in Outlaw Woman, being working-class, unsure of myself, not sure of the movement lingo. But the movement seemed so massive then, always somewhere to go. You don’t have that today, but it is better than it was in the 1980s. You don’t have to travel to remote places anymore to protest, which placed dissent in very elite hands.

    LT: If you can say one good thing about the newer Global Justice Movement is that it is trying to move politics far beyond some of the old generation’s faultlines. But it wants to listen to the veterans as well, no?

    RDO: When Betita wrote “Where Was the Color in Seattle?” people really responded. There was an openness, a lot of people said let us work together on that.

    LT: She wouldn’t have gotten the same reaction in the 1980s!

    RDO: Right. I feel very inspired by the younger generation. And it isn’t just because I live in this cocoon here. There are very real pockets of resistance now, and they don’t argue as much as we did in the 1960s. It is more dangerous to do so today.