Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005).

What makes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz so compelling, both as a person and as a writer, is that she cannot function without seeing the entire canvas of anti-imperialism. Roxanne is not a one-issue person; she is a vital, dialectical thinker. Over thirty-five years ago when Roxanne and I first met in the heady days of the incipient Women’s Movement, we solidly agreed on the need to keep the goal of fundamental social change in sight. Over the decades, that commitment to the big picture never wavered. In Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, Roxanne applies her sharp analytical apparatus to Central America and the Indigenous Movement, but never abandons the resolute feminism and relentless honesty of the early years. She is as frank, fearless and calmly confident in 2006 as she was in 1970 when we struggled for female liberation together.

Blood on the Border is the third volume of a powerful trilogy of memoirs by this activist-scholar. First came Red Dirt: Growing up Okie (Verso 1997), the story of the author’s political and personal formation in rural Oklahoma; then Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975 (City Lights Books 2001), the narration of her participation in the Women’s and Anti-War Movements. And finally, we are treated to this latest work that focuses on the role of marginalized indigenous peoples in bringing about social change, and Dunbar-Ortiz’s part in that struggle. The vision that links the three volumes is the author’s determination to dissect and contest the US national origin myth. She defines this myth in Outlaw Woman: “…a matrix of stories that justify conquest and settlement, transforming the white settlers into an indigenous people who believe they are the true natives of the continent”(57f).

In the first decade of the 21st century, some of the most significant social movements in Latin America have arisen among indigenous peoples; in places like Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, they are challenging both US power and the ruling elites of their own countries. Roxanne’s saga of the Contra war gives us invaluable tools for understanding the opposing forces in this current confrontation.

Her memoir blends first-hand observation, astute political and historical analysis, and relentless personal honesty to produce a compelling historical/literary text. Dunbar-Ortiz recounts her role in the Central American drama that unfolded between 1979 -– when the Sandinista National Liberation Front brought about the collapse of Somoza regime –- and the ousting of the Sandinistas from power in the 1990 elections. She also uncovers unexamined aspects of the US intervention in Nicaragua; a central aspect of her story is an eyewitness account of how the Miskitu people of Nicaragua were used by the United States as tools in its wars against the Sandinistas.

Following the Sandinista victory in 1979, the Miskitu, Sumu and Rama indigenous peoples formed MISURASATA and demanded Sandinista acknowledgment and support for their self-determination, starting with including the indigenous languages in the popular literacy campaign. Although the Sandinistas agreed to a literacy program in indigenous languages, they balked at indigenous sovereignty. As Dunbar-Ortiz explains, the relationship between the Spanish-speaking (almost wholly non-indigenous) Sandinistas of Western Nicaragua and the non-Spanish-speaking indigenous peoples of Eastern Nicaragua was historically complex and fraught with difficulties –- difficulties adroitly manipulated by US policymakers to pit indigenous peoples against the Sandinistas. For 500 years, leaders in the Americas have insisted that tolerating indigenous cultures and societies would undermine the nation-state. However, in recent years the centuries-old relations between states and indigenous peoples have started to reverse themselves with new attention given to the reality of multiethnic states. Blood on the Border is an important contribution to this dialogue.

The book covers the period 1974 to 1988, encompassing the author’s decade-long involvement with the Sandinista revolution. After years of intense, full-time activities in the Women’s Movement and anti-imperialist campaigns, Dunbar-Ortiz (whose maternal lineage is in part Native American) joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) after the siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. Her prologue offers highlights from the first two volumes of memoirs and an insightful analysis of the breakdown of the student movement of the sixties and early seventies. Blood on the Border organizes a wealth of unknown or little-known information on the Contra War and its official and unofficial protagonists in North and Central America.

Weaving in and out of the fluidly written narrative is the account of the author’s bouts with alcoholism, failed personal relationships, evocations of early years in rural Oklahoma, and clashes with the Left. In her ongoing struggle to ensure the indigenous peoples of Nicaragua self-determination within the Sandinista revolution, we accompany Dunbar-Ortiz on many trips to Nicaragua to dialogue with Sandinistas; to Tegucigalpa and the office of John Negroponte (then US Ambassador to Honduras); through almost impenetrable Miskitu villages in Eastern Nicaragua; to near-death on a sabotaged plane; and on missions to Mexico and Geneva working with the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Non-Aligned Movement in support of indigenous peoples – with some significant victories. We witness, in 1982, the formation of her friendship with future Nobel Peace Prize winner Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchú.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s method is economical and effective. She creates detailed snapshots that depict cultural and social factors together with the political economy of any given historical or current situation; into this background are introduced specific players, and their motivations and actions, including the author herself. In this way, one comes to understand many events in depth, and often from new perspectives. To cite but a few examples: we learn what the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the Sioux and the US government really signified (24f); why and how the Atlantic Coast of Central America became the original foothold of US imperialism overseas (140f); and what the unique role of Moravian missionaries was in Miskitia (107f).

One of the most gripping cases of historical exposé is the chapter entitled “Red Christmas.” “Operation Red Christmas,” so named by the CIA in December 1981, was the opening maneuver of the US-organized and -financed Contra war to oust the Sandinistas. Not many people knew about it at the time, and little of the reportage and history then or since has identified Red Christmas as the beginning of the Contra war. Dunbar-Ortiz knew about it only because she was there.  She gives an extraordinary account of the role of CIA-trained guerrillas who attacked Sandinista forces along the Rio Coco in northeastern Nicaragua at Christmas time in 1981. Most of the guerrillas were Miskitu who, after listening to Moravian and Contra propaganda, actually believed that the Sandinistas planned to incarcerate them in Cuban concentration camps while Cuban settlers would come and colonize their land. The Contra strategy was to keep the Sandinistas busy putting down a CIA-created Miskitu rebellion, so that they would be unable to defend Managua (the capital city located in the West) from attacks from the north and south. The CIA’s other objective, Dunbar-Ortiz recounts, was to place civilians, Miskitus, into the crossfire so that the US could accuse the Sandinistas of massacring the Indians.

The final chapter and epilogue cover the Sandinistas’ ouster from power in the 1990 elections and the collapse of the socialist bloc, and bring us up to 2003. “Nicaragua,” the author concludes, “was the last great hope for national liberation movements to succeed in breaking free from imperialism. That window of opportunity for national-democratic transitions from Western colonialism and imperialism has closed. More than that, the nation-state as such has failed to make a transition to peaceful international relations.” The dream of peace among nation-states does not appear possible, as the United Nations can do nothing against US wishes; indigenous movements are therefore “ever more fundamental to humanity in reaching a different conclusion than a nuclear war or environmental disaster” (303f).  This is a big statement and an urgent topic at the beginning of the 21st century. I hope we hear more on it from this seasoned veteran with proven credentials.

Blood on the Border is a first-rate testimonial — it is also testimony to the value of merging personal commitment with socio-political analysis. In addition, it is a significant part of an ongoing reevaluation of the revolutionary decades 1960-1980, and a major contribution to understanding the increasing global role of indigenous peoples in social change. Best of all, it’s a great read.

Reviewed by Roberta L. Salper
Boston University

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