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A Yankee Notebook

March 12, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – We were driving north on a Sunday afternoon to Granada, Nicaragua, in our white Toyota Land Cruiser – six people: four of us jammed into the back seat, with an elbow hanging out the window on either side, and a pile of luggage on the roof. We must have looked to the locals like a gold-laden Spanish galleon. I’m sure we looked that way to the cop standing in the road who waved us over to a little roadside shack. We’d been stopped at the same place just about a week earlier, headed south, by a pair of mumbling cops who’d scrutinized us and let us go. But this guy looked much more serious and competent. Tall and soft-spoken, emanating probity, he asked for Phil’s driver’s license. He looked at it, and then announced in Spanish that we’d illegally passed somebody on the road a couple of miles back. When he turned around, we could see the Kalashnikov hanging between his shoulder blades. Remembering its problems with its safety catch, I uncharitably wished it might suddenly detonate and blow off the back of one of his shoes.

We had no idea whether we had passed anybody – I seriously doubted it; Phil had been driving very moderately – and we further had no idea how this guy could possibly know it. He announced that he’d keep the license, and Phil could go to the courthouse Monday to pay his fine and retrieve the license. It was such an obvious con that, normally, we’d have ponied up the amount of the fine, charged it to the expense account, and continued. Phil was aghast, uncertain how best to extricate himself from the clutches of the Nicaraguan constabulary. Providentially, however, we had a Spanish speaker with us: Consuelo, who took charge of the responses. I understood very little of what passed between her and the arresting officer. Apparently startled that anyone in the car spoke such good Spanish, he asked her how come. She was a Chilean native, she told him. Then it was out of the car – she, Phil, and I – and over to the guardhouse. Phil went because he was the alleged miscreant; she because she could respond properly; and I because I had the Nicaraguan cash, and have, besides, been working on a most piercing and intimidating stare. For once I kept mum.

Consuelo explained that we were not tourists at all, but a film crew and teachers visiting Nicaraguan schoolchildren to help them appreciate their habitat and wildlife, and film their activities. The officer thought briefly about that, said something like, “Oh, well, if it’s schoolchildren you’re helping...” and reached into his desk drawer, retrieving Phil’s license and my 200 cordobas – about ten bucks, I think. Reluctantly, he waved us on.

The experience was a lot like what we Yankees used to enjoy on our way to Florida in midwinter before the construction of Interstate 95: small towns in South Carolina and Georgia with speed limits rigidly enforced by local sheriffs; James Dickey’s cameo in Deliverance comes most quickly to mind. The Southern cops spoke not Spanish, but in a drawl that signaled just as certainly that we were in a foreign country with no recourse but cash or jail. We kept most of our cash in a plastic envelope under the floor mat and prayed they wouldn’t impound the car.

The Nicaraguans I spoke to during our visit expressed a grudging admiration for their neighbor Costa Rica, which has managed to market itself as an environmentally friendly, safe, and scenic place to take a winter vacation. Prices are lower in Nicaragua, but it retains the unfortunate aura so effectively stamped upon it by the machinations of the Reagan Administration. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had in 1979 managed to uproot the dictatorship of the Somoza family and instituted a government devoted – at least in principle - to education, health care, and gender equality. To many disgruntled Somozistas and the United States government that sounded suspiciously like Marxism; so the United States, through the CIA, began to support counterrevolutionary militias known as Contras.

This support expanded, courtesy of Oliver North, John Poindexter, Manuel Noriega, and the Iranian government, until it came to light. The President claimed ignorance; North and Poindexter took the fall. The FSLN today remains pretty firmly entrenched – its red-and-black flag flies everywhere, and the power poles along the roads are decorated in the same colors – and the people seem to be pretty much going on about their business. But the damage has been done: Most American citizens still think of Nicaragua as a fairly dangerous place for Yanquis.

That impression was indelibly reinforced by our encounter with the gun-toting cop. It wasn’t that any of us really feared violence; it was, rather, the feeling that there was no authority higher than his (including the judge, in cahoots, who would return the license for a fine) to whom we had recourse. A Nicaraguan businessman with whom I shared a seat on the plane back to Miami said, “You have to remember, these people make very little money.” That explained the road block, but didn’t excuse it. Where might we have been without Consuelo’s fluency in Spanish?

The day after I got home was Town Meeting Day. Listening to the arguments for and against various warrant items was particularly reassuring. Even the evening news on television, in spite of all the obvious hyperbole, bluster, and vituperation of this year’s campaigns, was not so unsettling as the encounter on the road to Granada. Our fights amongst ourselves seem to me like the squabbles of children in a school yard: They’re serious, heartfelt, and consequential; but I think most of us feel that we operate in an atmosphere of safety and essential decency. Generally, when we uncover corruption in our body politic, the discovery entails penalties – unlike as in many other countries where they often shoot the messenger. We may argue with each other; indeed, that’s our heritage and patriotic duty. But when it’s over, and the votes are counted – honestly, in almost all cases – we can get back to business. That’s one of the most precious legacies of our founders.

Photo by Willem lange