Fourteen community activists traveled from Olympia to Santo Thomas, Nicaragua 25 years ago, determined to show the people of the impoverished agricultural community that they vehemently opposed the U.S.-backed Contra War designed to other throw the Nicaraguan’s Sandanistan government.
The foreign visitors found a community still in shock from the attack by 300 Contra forces on their village the year before.
“There are few other words that express the state of our host families and other people we met around town other than “post traumatic stress survivors,” recalled Jean Eberhardt, an academic advisor at The Evergreen State College and a member of the first Olympia Construction Brigade to visit Santo Tomas in 1988.
They joined with the town’s Committee for Community Development to start construction of a 3,000 square-foot sewing school and sewing cooperative for the women of the town. It was a safe haven for them, a place to socialize and learn a marketable skill.
Some of the Olympians from that inaugural construction brigade gathered back home in the fall of 1988 to form the Thurston-Santo Tomas Sister County Association, a non-profit group that has fostered a people-to-people relationship with their new-found Nicaraguan friends, an alliance that endured long after the Contra War ended and a semblance of peace returned to one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
“I’ve been back to Santo Tomas 12 times,” Eberhardt said. “It’s like a second home to me.”
The sister association supports a variety of community projects in Santo Tomas — a preschool, a health clinic, a children’s free lunch program, a model farm, a micro-lending program, a university scholarship program and activities for youth.. The group also fostered a sister school program with Lincoln Elementary School and the Ruben Dario school in Santo Tomas. It also sponsors delegations from Santo Tomas to visit Olympia.
Grace Cox, an Olympia Food Co-op customer services employee, first went to Santo Tomas in 2000, and has been back five times.
“It really opened up my eyes to how desperately poor the country was, but how there was still laughter, gaiety and an indomitable spirit,” Cox said. “I learned that poverty does not necessarily equal misery.”
Cox is spearheading a Thuston-Santo Tomas Sister County Association campaign to raise roughly $8,000 to help renovate the original sewing co-op and school, expand offerings there to include counseling and health referrals.
When I think of Nicaragua, I have memories of a brief stay in the country in 1971, only three days, because that’s all a customs official at the border with Honduras would grant us. I can still see his sullen face, sugar cane spittle dripping down his chin as he inspected our road-weary Volkswagen bus.
In those three days in a country under the iron-fisted rule of Anastasio Somoza Debayle we:
* Drew a crowd of curious village youth to our river campsite northwest of Managua. The mother of three of the children invited us to sleep in their home. We showed her our bed in the back of the bus, thanked her for her offer, and declined.
* Saw Army troops lurking around gas stations and small villages. Whenever we stopped, they descended on us with suspicion and questions: Where are you going? Where are you coming from?
* Had a chance encounter with a Nicaraguan office worker at a German beer garden in Managua who told us American billionaire recluse Howard Hughes had just arrived in the country. “Perhaps he has come to buy our country, no?” The stranger said, only half in jest.
A year later Managua was all but destroyed by a 6.2 earthquake that killed 12,000 and left 200,000 homeless. Recovery was slow, punctuated by tragic stories such as this: In a makeshift barrio rising from the earthquake rubble of Managua, a dozen men, including the barkeep, gathered in a clapboard tienda on a pockmarked street to drink rum from an old insecticide drum. They poisoned themselves to death.
Today, the Sandanistas are the majority party in Nicaragua and U.S. involvement is minimal. The town of Santo Tomas has doubled in size to nearly 25,000 since Eberhardt first visited. There are internet cafes, more public and private schools and well-stocked stores, even though many lack jobs to buy things.
She said it’s not unusual for young Nicaraguan adults to leave for neighboring Costa Rica to work as farmhands, and domestic employees.
“These Nicaraguans are the underclass propping up Costa Rica’s middle class,” she said. “The racism against them is palpable.”
Maureen Hill was at that first, sister association organizing meeting in the fall of 1988. She’s only been to Santo Tomas once — it was two years ago — but stays active with the Olympia-based group.
“I see the value of the work, the direct impact it’s had on so many lives,” she said. “We wanted the people of Santo Tomas to know that not everyone supported what are government was doing at that time.”
The message has been delivered time and time again by a dedicated group of activists who call Olympia home.
To learn more, visit www.oly—wa.us/tstsca.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444