Lucky me. I’d bought a raffle ticket at a meeting held in a draughty old Edinburgh school, on a cold dark night in January 1986. I’m not sure if I even checked to see what the prize was, but two months later, I received a phone call informing me that I had won a three-week study tour to Nicaragua, not a place that I knew much about, apart from it being the birthplace of Mick Jagger’s ex, Bianca and to be honest, I was too busy with being recently married and studying an Open University degree to have time for much else. We had just discovered that Moyra was pregnant and a trip to Central America was not in our plans, but she convinced me to go.
A few months later I stepped off a plane into the bright sunshine and scorching heat of Managua, where I was met by the Nicaraguan Solidarity Committee’s Dave Thomson, a bearded Dundonian with a cadaverous appearance who introduced me to a dozen other tired-looking Brits. I watched the fire in their eyes dwindle as he explained that a military helicopter had just been shot down and the airport was now in lockdown. We trundled over to a corner and bunked down on the cool floor, napping, and making polite conversation until eventually we heard a screechy Airport tannoy announcement and joined the crowds shuffling towards the ‘salidas’.
A rickety minibus took us through the darkness to the shanty towns on the edge of the sprawling city. My eyes stared at the shabby houses, made of corrugated metal, patchwork bricks and discarded timber. The bare windows allowed me to catch a glimpse of their lives inside. Every box staged the same scene of young families dressed in ragged clothes hurdled together watching the flickering lights of old tv sets. Whilst outside, ‘the men of the house’ sat guarding their shabby castles with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other, greeting us with a smile as we drove past. Soon the makeshift barrios were replaced with old colonial villas, sitting proudly behind painted walls, palm trees and shrubbery. Among these bungalows was a small hotel, Las Palmeras, our base for the next three weeks.
In the morning, I joined the others in the shade of the hotel foyer to receive our introductory briefing from Dave. The aroma of freshly made coffee filled the air as he told us some of the history of Nicaragua and how the Sandinistas had overthrown the bloody Samosa regime in 1979. However, the country was in ruins, out of a population of 2.8million 600,000 were homeless. Disease, poverty, and illiteracy were rife and although the ruling FSLN had spent the last seven years trying to rebuild their nation in the face of a US-imposed embargo and the constant threat from the ‘Contras’, various US-funded right-wing rebel groups who wanted a return to ‘the good old days’.
Over the next three weeks, we travelled the length and breadth of the country from tropical Ocotal in the north, where the Nicaraguan national hero Sandino defeated the US in 1927, to San Juan del Sur in the south, with its colourful houses, sandy beaches and a giant statue of Jesus watching from above. We met a wide and diverse group of people, from women’s groups to newspaper editors, from politicians to prisoners, from refugees to fishermen. In Managua I was chilled to see an old tank rusting in the sun in what would have one day been a city centre but was now an urban desert, where the streets had no names and very few buildings remained standing. In Matagalpa I noticed the bullet holes on the side of the adobe houses, revealing the straw, cactus, and horse manure below their rich brown exteriors. In Masaya we saw the live volcano in which the Samosa National Guard had disposed of student activist, David Tejada’s body, turning the volcano into a martyr’s crematorium.
In Leon we visited a local school, the wide smiles and sparkling eyes of the kids matched the excitement in their high-pitched voices. Because I was so tall, they asked me if I could pick the mangoes of the surrounding trees for them. I stretched up and grabbed one, I squeezed its pale-yellow skin and felt how hard it was, not ripe yet. But I could not deny the eager faces and past it down, and then another, and another. One little girl looked up at me and in a voice full of the innocence of youth asked:
‘Juan, why does President Reagan want to kill us, all we want is food and books, not bombs?’
I fought back the tears, my lips trembled, my hands shook and then I told her that not everyone was like Reagan, that there were many good people in the world, people willing to help Nicaragua, help her and her classmates get food and books.
I made a pledge with myself that when I returned to the UK, I would do whatever I could to help the fledging nation.
I wrote articles, gave speeches, and helped a fair-trade company ‘Equal Exchange’, to educate people about Nicaragua and help support their economy. Years later I met President Daniel Ortega at a function held in his honour and he asked me why I had gone to his country. I told him that I had won a raffle and asked if he had won a raffle to come to Scotland. He hugged me close and whispered in my ear ‘you could say that, but we called it an election’.