U.S. troops aid cradle of Nicaraguan nationalism
WIWILI, Nicaragua (Reuters) -- To the cheers of local residents, U.S.
troops on Wednesday inaugurated a small hospital in a rugged region of
Nicaragua known as the cradle of anti-American sentiment.
The event marked the end of a landmark U.S. mission in Nicaragua, where
more than 1,800 troops were deployed in December to help rebuild
infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Mitch in October.
Operation Build Hope brought some 4,700 U.S. troops to Nicaragua,
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to help the impoverished region pick
up the pieces from a storm that killed thousands of people and caused
billions of dollars in damage.
To some extent, the troops helped rewrite history in Wiwili, a riverside
hamlet tucked in the mountains 168 miles (270 km) north of the capital,
Managua. It was here that Gen.
Augusto Sandino fought occupying U.S. Marines 70 years ago to become a
His name was adopted by the leftist Sandinista Front that overthrew dictator
Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and took power, only to face the U.S.-backed
Contra insurgency of the 1980s.
"This place was the cradle of the Sandinista Front," said Rosa Juarez,
served up rice and beans for U.S. troops in a makeshift cafeteria alongside
their austere camp. "But even the Sandinistas are convinced of what they
came to do when they see their labour," she added.
Flood waters from the Coco River destroyed Juarez's business and much of
the village, rising to the hospital roof and leaving 160 area communities and
60,000 inhabitants without a clinic.
"We were without hope," Juarez told Reuters. "We never thought we'd have
a new clinic like this one so fast."
The U.S. troops' arrival was met with some grumbling in Wiwili and
elsewhere in Nicaragua. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, the former
president, labeled the soldiers spies and said they would spread AIDS
among the population.
But many Wiwili residents began to befriend the strangers as the medical
facility's twin wooden buildings, with a capacity of 32 beds, rose on the edge
Townspeople, especially children, came daily to watch the troops work,
despite language problems, began to learn the visitors' names. Then they
organised baseball games. The sport, which U.S. Marines introduced
decades ago, has become Nicaragua's national sport.
Last week villagers threw a goodbye party for the soldiers.
"We are saying goodbye to many friends," Guillermo Altamirano, a local
resident, told Reuters.
The 90 engineers, doctors and other U.S. specialists saw eye-opening
poverty but did not feel unwelcome.
"The people welcomed us from Day One," Sgt. Maria Brandon, a medical
assistant from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said.
"They were very open-hearted."
For many young U.S. troops, Nicaragua's history of civil war and tense
relations with the United States is part of the distant past. Officials of both
countries have called this mission a sign of a new age in U.S.-Nicaraguan
"We're not living in the past. We're living in the future," said Maj. Jeffrey
Eckstein, who was in charge of the Wiwili project. "Our actions speak for
In a potent symbol of changing times, President Bill Clinton is tentatively
scheduled to visit Wiwili next month during a trip to Central America to
survey hurricane damage.
Rosa Juarez will be ready with a message for the U.S. president.
"Here we have only misery and backward development," she said. "With the
North Americans' help, we can we move ahead.
Here, we're hoping they come back."
Copyright 1999 Reuters.