WORLD/EDUCATION/FEATURE — The State Of Education In Post-Iran-Contra Nicaragua

It’s November and muggy — the sort of day during which you expend so much energy trying to fan away the blanket of heat that you end up sweating even more. In the middle of a crumbling courtyard, a group of Nicaraguan students has gathered to play a frenzied game of “Never Have I Ever,” which has devolved into a simple English language lesson. Taking turns, each one is allowed to name something they like.

One of the students picks “Nicaragua.” A local woman standing nearby purses her lips disapprovingly, prompting her American companion to nudge her and joke, “You don’t like your own country?” There’s a brief moment of silence before the woman turns to reply. “No,” she says sternly. “The United States was on the wrong side.”

Out of context, it seems like one of those passing comments that get hyperbolized in hokey docudramas or tossed around by graduate students hoping to impress their friends who have engineering degrees. But it’s not totally untrue. Nicaragua isn’t the country it should have been by now, and that’s at least partially due to the American intervention of the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. Now, there are some — mainly starry-eyed kids and a host of nonprofit groups — who are trying to fix whatever fragile relationship is left between the two nations through an assemblage of ambitious initiatives. At the heart of their toil is education.

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Much of the Nicaraguan Civil War’s middle years were filled with smoking buildings, antitank weaponry, and broken concrete slabs covered in dust, blood, and crying children — something you’d likely see plastered up in a tragic National Geographic photo essay or displayed morbidly in an art gallery in SoHo.

In the United States, the Contra scandal, with its hours of Oliver North testimony, left the public hungry for more. In the words of columnist and former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, “It was a classic good-versus-evil war, [but] there was great debate … about which side was good and which evil.”

By the early ‘90s, however, American interest had faded significantly. There was the infamous CIA/Contra cocaine smuggling scandal in 1996, in which San Jose Mercury Times reporter Gary Webb accused the government of funding the Contra effort by trafficking crack cocaine from Nicaragua to the slums of America. But that story dissipated when then-President Bill Clinton admitted on live television that he’d had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. For all intents and purposes, the United States had forgotten the Nicaraguan people.

Image: Melanie Schmitz