Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Recommendations

When people ask us for book recommendations about Nicaragua, we usually point to Blood of Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer and The Country Under My Skin, by Gioconda Belli. (Click the links to read my review on goodreads.) Let me add a third, a book of photography and testimonies called Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy, by Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick. The photography in the book is stunning, but it makes for a much more intense reading experience that might not be for everyone. Here's my brief review:
Lots of books are described as labors of love, but Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick's somber, moving photo essay certainly qualifies. During the Contra War of the 1980s, Dix was a Witness for Peace photographer documenting the consequences of war for rural Nicaraguans living in the war zones. Decades later the authors returned to Nicaragua with a stack of 100 photos and criss-crossed the country in buses trying to track down the (usually unnamed) faces found there. Some people were found in the very same village, others had migrated across the country. The result is a beautiful but harrowing portrait of a nation in recovery.

To be honest, the book is fairly grim in places. The contras targeted civilians, especially those with ties to the Sandinistas - literacy volunteers, farm-coop members and the like. And so we meet orphaned children, widows and widowers, grieving parents and an overwhelming number of people who lost limbs to landmines or ambushes. Almost to a person the interviewees say they cannot forget or erase the moment in which violence changed their lives, and even those whose bodies remain whole carry scars. But miraculously, there is a lot of forgiveness found here too. Turning a shoulder to the past is a necessity, in part because contras and Sandinistas come from the same families, still live together in the same villages, and still congregate at the same churches.

By and large, the economic situation for the people had not changed much in the follow-up interviews and the neo-liberal governments that followed the 1990 elections had rolled back many of the Sandinista reforms regarding access to education and health care. The subtext of the book (as well as the subtitle) is the consequences of U.S. policy, and the authors often pose the question, "What would you say to the people of the United States?" More than one person connects U.S. involvement in Nicaragua in the '80s to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. (Many of the follow-up interviews were conducted in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq war.)

The U.S. is seemingly constantly at war, but we always arrange to conduct those wars in somebody else's backyard. This book is a reminder of the terrible costs that war exacts on the locals. These sorts of books are typically published years after the war in question is finished, but they still carry important truths that we should keep in mind for the next one.

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