As an American physician who has worked in troubled parts of the tropics for more than 30 years, I have learned to avoid political comment overseas. There the task is to help the sick and not fan flames of hatred. But back in my own country there can be no excuse for silence, especially if one has seen the scope of suffering and destruction I witnessed recently in Nicaragua. If one believes in the greatness of America, if one hopes for a `kinder, gentler' land, those of us privileged to work among the poor in the Third World have a special obligation to report on what we see.
We must tell our fellow citizens what is being perpetrated in our name, and there is nothing subtle about the carnage in Nicaragua. We must remind--or, maybe, educate--politicians that our own national interests, and even our ultimate security, will be based more on a respect for the rules of international law than on the transient gratification that seems to come with arrogant displays of power. For me it would be un-American to supress the outrage that overwhelms one in Nicaragua, for I believe that current U.S. policy is destroying not only their lives but our souls.
The cowardly accommodation with evil that has characterized our approach in Central America is patently immoral. While we demand the resignations of those in our government who even appear to violate ethical standards, an obsession with overthrowing the Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua has allowed our highest officials to act as open collaborators with kidnapers and rapists and killers of innocent civilians in the name of democracy. These are not exaggerated claims, for the victims are all over the blood-soaked land of Nicaragua for anyone with eyes to see.
The early dreams of the Nicaraguan revolution have faded and mere survival is now a source of pride. The literacy campaigns and public health projects that gave such enthusiasm and glory to the post-Somoza period finally fell victim to our guerrilla war. Today, amputees wait in decaying hospitals for prostheses that cannot be purchased because the nation's currency is almost worthless.
The legless teenagers of Nicaragua have become a part of our American legacy. Thousands of limbs were blown off in the last decade by American mines planted by American-paid contra forces. In our name, and supported by our tax dollars, this mercenary army selectively destroyed schools, health centers, agricultural seed banks and hydroelectric plants. As a coup de grace the United States imposed an economic embargo on Nicaragua, propelling the country into chaos. But the long-term burden of international condemnation, and the eventual isolation, shame and guilt, may have a greater effect on America than even the immediate pain and suffering experienced by Nicaragua.
How many Americans know that our country has been convicted, in the International Court of Justice at the Hague, of acts of terrorism against Nicaragua? How many Americans realize that our illegal mining of Nicaragua's harbors was condemned by almost every country in a formal United Nations vote?
The pattern of lies and deceit that culminated in the Iran-contra affair has damaged the moral credibility of the United States around the world. Those who frittered away our nation's reputation for honesty and integrity may have cost us more than all our foreign aid donations.
We pour billions of tax dollars a year into Central America. The vast majority of it is military assistance propping up right-wing regimes and contra forces that violate every tenet of decency and justice we were once taught to revere in America. I am certain the average American, given the chance to witness the results, would not condone such spending. What if those sums had been devoted to medical projects or education? Would we not be more secure if our investments had led to healthy neighbors with thriving economies? And even if we were not wise and generous enough to do that for other countries, wouldn't it have been at least more humane to invest that largess in our own schools, hospitals and housing for the homeless?
During the past decade, Cuba has annually sent 320 doctors to staff rural Nicaraguan clinics. Today four U.S. physician-volunteers serve our image as a humane and caring nation, and we wonder why the United States is losing the battle for the minds and hearts of mankind.
History is not on the side of those who think they can strangle independence in Nicaragua. For a century and a half we have intervened with armed force whenever a freedom movement flickered there, but times have changed, both around the world and in the United States. There is an almost irrepressible resilience in Nicaragua, and somehow the nation will survive, struggling for those basic sovereign rights we take for granted. We should have enough confidence in our great land to reject foolish fears--tiny Nicaragua never has been and cannot be a threat to us.
There are alternatives that could simultaneously stop the killing and allow us to recapture the nobility of our Founding Fathers. With the wisdom and strength that comes with maturity, we should be able to deal generously with newly independent nations without making them act as supplicant states. We should be able to understand their aspirations, share in their joys and sorrows and, in doing so, renew ourselves before something essential for America is lost forever.